The Congress is Imploding in the Twin Telugu States

With the trickle of desertions rapidly turning into a torrent, the Congress party in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is facing a crisis like never before

All that's left of the Congress in Telugu country now. Credit: Hendrik Ploeger

All that’s left of the Congress in Telugu country now. Credit: Hendrik Ploeger

When two Congress leaders – Botsa Satyanarayana in Andhra Pradesh and Dharmapuri Srinivas (DS) in Telangana – recently crossed party lines in quick succession, it brought into focus a pattern that may determine the future of the party in the Telugu world. While Srinivas joined the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), Botsa went to the YSR Congress, which is the opposition party in AP.

Both represent crucial castes – Botsa is a Kapu leader while DS belongs to the sizeable backward caste (OBC) grouping – and therefore have the potential to become game changers in the two states. Both bring with them tried-and-tested organisational skills and an ability to ‘manage’ crucial resources during elections as well as lean times.

The irony is that both leaders had headed the Congress’s unit in the undivided state in happier times – when the party ruled the state with a huge majority – and had sworn undying loyalty to Sonia Gandhi and the family.

A stream of desertions

Former APCC President Botsa Satyanarayana along with his supporters joins YSRCP in the presence of party chief Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy in Hyderabad last month. Credit: PTI

Former APCC President Botsa Satyanarayana along with his supporters joins YSRCP in the presence of party chief Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy in Hyderabad last month. Credit: PTI

The two leaders are the latest to join a steady stream of desertions from the Congress, which started even before the elections. The incumbent Chief Minister N Kiran Kumar Reddy resigned in February 2014 to float his own party, while D Purandeswari, minister of state for human resource development in the UPA, left to join the BJP. Several key leaders moved to the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) or YSR Congress – rightly anticipated to be the key players in Andhra. Other veteran Congressmen like JC Diwakar Reddy and Ganta Srinivasa Rao flipped before the elections to head to TDP, whereas Kanna Lakshminarayana joined the BJP after the polls.

Since the last year, several Congressmen, including elected MLAs, have also moved to the TRS in Telangana. The beeline to TRS is only growing because the party, in power because of the separate statehood sentiment, lacks credible leaders in various districts, especially in southern Telangana, where it is still weak. The Congress has been protesting, accusing the TRS of resorting to unethical practices, but has no answer for the question when it is reversed – why are these leaders leaving the party?

Historically, the undivided state of Andhra Pradesh had been a Congress stronghold. It had elected 33 members to the Lok Sabha in 2009 and played a key role in the formation of the UPA-1 and 2 governments for the party. The people of the state had not only stood by the party, but a large number of them have a deep-rooted sense of connection with the Gandhi family.

Bleak future

Obviously, things have changed, and drastically. No leader thinks the Congress has any future; the path away from it may be different in both states but the conclusion itself is the same.

In undivided Andhra, the party was routed thoroughly in 2014 – it lost 25 seats in the Lok Sabha elections and 175 in the state assembly elections – with as many as 150 assembly candidates losing their deposit. The results reflected people’s anger against the party – for its decision to bifurcate the state, the loss of the capital Hyderabad, uncertainty about the future and a sense of humiliation over the manner in which the Telangana bill was pushed through the Lok Sabha weeks before elections. Despite growing disenchantment with the Telugu Desam and the BJP-led Central governments, that anger in residual AP has hardly simmered down.

As KV Rohit, AP State IT Cell member of the BJP, puts it, “The pain and humiliation have wounded the psyche of the people and the scars are deep. While the TDP-YSRC duel is politics as usual, the public is in no mood to forgive the Congress. Not just leaders, but most cadres too have abandoned the party. The party’s leaders are not coming out to fight the present government because no one will join them – even on a rightful cause”. “For the first time,” he added, “we have seen the party offices close down and disappear from mandals to villages across districts that were their support centres.”

In a state divided along caste lines, the significant Reddy community which always stood with the Congress, now strongly backs YSR Congress leader YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who also enjoys widespread support in his home turf of Rayalaseema. In many pockets of Andhra, especially those dominated by the Kamma community, the TDP remains strong.

It is generally regarded that it is the BCs in general, and the Kapu community in particular, that decides the winner in Andhra; but despite having K Chiranjeevi, a Kapu and yesteryears megastar, on its side, the Congress still appears to be sliding in the state. Any hope it might have of Chiranjeevi reviving the party has been dashed by the actor-politician’s younger brother, Pawan Kalyan, whose Jana Sena did not fight the elections but supported the BJP-TDP combine, which proved to be the X-factor in the equation. With no region or caste strongly backing the Congress, many are predicting that the party is truly on its way out of a region that once was its own.

Telangana, a state without an opposition

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao welcomes former Congress leader Dharmapuri Srinivas into the TRS at party headquarters in Hyderabad last month. Credit: PTI.

Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao welcomes former Congress leader Dharmapuri Srinivas into the TRS at party headquarters in Hyderabad last month. Credit: PTI.

Today, Telangana has only one leader and one force – K Chandrasekhara Rao and his party, the TRS. There has been no opposition to him during the elections because of his moral ownership of the struggle for a separate state. KCR’s numbers have only grown after the election, mainly owing to his ability to successfully pull away MLAs from the Congress and the TDP and his alliance with the Owaisi brothers’ Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen.

Meanwhile, the Congress, which had some hope at least a year ago with its claim of having birthed the state, is weakening by the day as its leaders get pulled away. The TDP, which was once strong in the region, too is withering because of its perception as an Andhra party. The BJP has its sentimental appeal in very small areas, where it benefits from communal polarization, but has largely remained a mute player in the state’s politics.

The Congress is losing ground in Telangana more slowly than in Andhra, but the course it has taken is unmistakeable. Given its original expectation that its Andhra losses would be offset by gains in the region that it granted separate statehood to; the situation couldn’t be more demoralising.

Down but not yet out

It is said that even cats envy the Congress for its many lives. Despite the many historical losses and defeats, it has always emerged to regain lost ground. Its sheer age has equipped it with traits that allow it to survive in the most hostile political landscapes, and four years is a very long time in politics.

This perhaps helps explain the confidence of Anil Eravathri, a young BC leader and former party whip, when he says, “A few leaders may leave the party when it is not in power, but parties like ours don’t become weak because of such opportunist shifts. We are working with the people on the ground. They are already disappointed. Disillusionment has set in. We will bounce back in Telangana.”

In Andhra too, those celebrating the demise of the Congress should heed the note of caution struck by Lakshminarayanan Ravichander, senior High Court counsel and political analyst. “While YSR Congress has emerged as the only opposition to the ruling TDP, we must not forget that the Congress has a history of joining hands with its former colleagues. From Maharashtra to Bengal, Tamil Nadu to Bihar – they have a track record that makes mergers and joint ventures highly possible. If Congress and YSRC make peace, with YS Jaganmohan Reddy as the CM candidate, they can be back in business. And that is just one of the many possibilities.”

Ravichander admits that the Congress is in disarray like it never was – not even post the Emergency – but also points out the party has traits the BJP lacks. “It is resilience of a different kind. They are seldom bitter about their leaders leaving; hence a ‘ghar wapsi’ is easier when it’s the Congress. For instance, even before the elections, when they were fighting a bitter battle, Digvijaya Singh constantly referred to Jagan as part of the Congress DNA and family. Three years down, if circumstances change in favour of the Congress, each of these leaders will head back to be part of a beaming photo-op,” he says.

For the Congress, the loss of old leaders can also turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Some of them have corruption charges against them, or have shifted allegiances so as to not lose their grip on power, save their businesses and other possibly ill-gotten gains. With Rahul Gandhi at the helm, the Congress could end up putting forward a new, positive face in both the states in the long-term.

However circumspect one might be in writing an obituary for the Congress in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the sickness of the patient itself can barely be denied. Will it slip into coma, or spring back like it always has, and perhaps still can – time might surprise those with either view.

Sriram Karri is author of the MAN Asian longlisted novel Autobiography of a Mad Nation