As Telangana Votes, Political Rhetoric Has Seen a Major Shift

What was noticeable during campaigning was the injection of nationalist commentary in the state’s political discourse, something that was absent in most south Indian states.

New Delhi: Telangana goes to polls today (December 7) to elect its second state assembly. The initial plans for simultaneous elections with next year’s Lok Sabha polls had to be shelved after chief minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao dissolved the assembly in September, nine months ahead of its scheduled expiry date.

Along with Telangana, four other states will elect their governments in November and December. Given the timing, these elections have acquired a special significance and are being projected as a litmus test for political parties – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as well as a range of opposition parties, including the Congress and powerful regional ones – ahead of the crucial 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

The poll results of the BJP-ruled states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh would reflect whether or not the saffron party is still in a position to galvanise voters across the country. Or whether the Congress-led ‘opposition unity’ has been able to get its act together and apply brakes on the BJP’s electoral advances.

Also read: Anti-Incumbency Is a Key Issue in the Telangana Assembly Elections

In such a scenario, polls in Telangana pose an interesting challenge. This is one of the few states where neither the Congress nor the BJP is in a particularly strong position. Though the main opposition party, the Congress had only 20 legislators in the 119-member strong house, the BJP too had just five legislators – all of them elected from Hyderabad. With 90 representatives, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s numbers were almost four times the combined total of the two national parties. However, Congress’s alliance has recently gained a lot of ground, threatening the TRS.

Perhaps encouraged by his party’s dominance of electoral politics (the TRS has managed to win most local body polls), the chief minister has mooted the idea of a non-BJP, non-Congress “federal front” comprising regional parties for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

If the Congress and BJP are looking at Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh to assess their popularity among voters, the TRS, in a bid to add credibility to the idea of a “federal front”, must retain Telangana.

The contenders

Rao claims his government has implemented all the welfare schemes promised in the election manifesto and even introduced ones that weren’t promised during the poll campaign. The TRS was initially confident of retaining power. In fact, the party bragged that it could win as many as 100 seats in the 119-member assembly.

Pitted against the TRS is the ‘Praja Kootami’ (grand alliance) and the BJP. The grand alliance comprises the main opposition Congress, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and smaller parties such as the Telangana Jana Samithi and the CPI.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu during a public meeting in poll-bound Telangana at Kodad in Suryapet on Wednesday. Credit: PTI

Landless and marginal farmers’ issues

In May, the TRS government launched Rythu Bandhu, its flagship farmer investment support scheme under which the government provides Rs 4,000 per acre to each farming household for every agricultural season (rabi and kharif). The government claims that the scheme has supported nearly 60 lakh farmers during the kharif season. It has also launched an insurance scheme for all land-owning farmers. The measures, the TRS hopes, will yield poll dividends in a largely agrarian state like Telangana.

It is, however, important to note that the scheme will benefit only landed farmers, which, in turn, has antagonised tenant and landless farmers. The undercurrent of discontent came to the surface in September when a tenant farmer killed himself in Hyderabad. Before taking his life, D. Venkateswaralu Rao wrote two letters, one to the chief minister and another to the agriculture minister, in which he regretted that tenant farmers were “shown less respect than dogs”.

Also read: In Telangana, TRS’s Flagship Farmers’ Welfare Scheme Could Be Its Downfall

The scheme has also not found favour with marginal farmers who cultivate less than 2.5 acres of land. It provides bare minimum support to them. Of the state’s 58 lakh farmers, an estimated 41 lakh are marginal ones. Nearly 6,500 farmers own more than 25 acres of land, some even as much as 100 acres. Such sharp inequalities in land ownership have further alienated marginal and small farmers.

With opposition parties harping on the chief minister’s refusal to include tenant farmers within the scheme’s fold, the Rythu Bandhu could backfire on the TRS. Congress, launching its pre-campaign ‘bus yatra’ in February, has been encouraged by the party’s well-attended rallies.

Rao’s slogan of “neellu, nidhulu, niyamakalu” (water, funds and jobs) captured the public’s imagination during the Telangana statehood movement. He made lofty promises about employment and agriculture during the previous election campaign. A perceived failure to deliver will certainly come to haunt him.

A farmer in Telangana spraying pesticide in a field. Credit: InStem

A farmer in Telangana spraying pesticide in a field. Credit: InStem

TRS playing the BJP game

Known to be a deeply religious person, Rao regularly conducts pujas for the “welfare of the state”. He offered gold ornaments worth Rs 5 crore at Tirupati in 2017 using money from the state’s revenue. Two years before that, he conducted a ‘maha yagnam’ – a religious ritual – to “solve” the state’s drought problem.

Though at the receiving end for such actions, Rao has continued to use public and governmental spaces to project his personal religious beliefs.

Rao has also infused a strand of nationalism into state politics, which began with him hoisting the “largest Indian flag” at Hussain Sagar lake in Hyderabad on the occasion of Telangana’s second formation day in June 2016.

Several small towns across Telangana now play the national anthem every morning at town centres to “instil patriotism”. Though Rao does not have an explicit role in launching such actions, these seem to enjoy his tacit endorsement. What is, therefore, becoming more noticeable is the injection of nationalist commentary in the state’s political discourse, something that was absent in most south Indian states.

So far, Rao has not shown any animosity towards minorities (in fact, his party has the support of Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM)). Commentators, however, have observed that such a mix of religious-nationalist politics can only strengthen the BJP and shore up its presence in the state. “One cannot combat the BJP by playing it at its own game. The ‘soft Hindutva’ approach will only benefit the Sangh,” said K. Vasant, a political analyst.

In what could be interpreted as signalling this political shift, the BJP recently inducted Swami Paripoornananda, a godman dubbed ‘Adityanath of the south’, into the party. While Paripoornananda is not contesting the election, his presence in the election campaign has given it a communal overtone. While the BJP may not threaten the TRS, it will certainly look to improve its tally.

Paripoornananda Swami. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Increased visibility of caste politics

Caste politics in Telangana has been largely restricted to issues of social justice. In the last poll campaign, Rao promised land and housing to Dalits. He even assured that the state’s first chief minister’s post would go to a Dalit leader.

Apart from Dalits and tribals, Telangana also has a large Backward Classes (BC) population. This is the constituency political parties have always reached out to, electorally as well as in terms of providing greater access to welfare services.

Over the past few years, however, dominant castes have started to play a greater role in moulding political and electoral strategies. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are perhaps the only states which have Brahmin welfare corporations, which are government-funded bodies meant to support “backward Brahmins”.

In its manifesto, TRS has also promised to constitute similar welfare corporations for Vaishya and Reddy communities (both forward castes), if re-elected to power. Both castes wield considerable influence in politics. The Reddy caste is hugely over-represented among the candidate lists of all the major political parties. The TRS’s tendency to shift the region’s traditional political rhetoric from social justice to wooing forward castes signals a change in the direction of state politics.