There are two remarkable things about the current election in Telangana. One is that it is the first vote in the new state that was carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 after a popular agitation by the subaltern classes of the region. The other is that it has brought together two once-implacable foes, the Indian National Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), to unseat the government of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). The three parties are dominated by the three principal elite social groups of the old state, Reddys, coastal Andhra migrants and Velamas, respectively.
The outcome of the vote will depend on the interplay of these two broad themes. How will a fledgling peasant state vote amid a tussle among the elites?
The alliance between the Congress and the TDP is an awkward one considering that the very founding premise of the latter in 1983 had been anti-Congressism. All the same, it has imparted a certain charge to the Congress campaign in the state, and there has been talk in party circles of winning a decent majority in the 7 December election.
The Congress-TDP partnership is a nod to the electoral axiom that a ruling party can be dislodged if the anti-incumbency vote is tapped in its entirety by one broad opposition alliance. Indeed, the TDP employed such a strategy to defeat the Congress in four state elections from 1983 to 1999. The Congress did vice versa in 2004. On the face of it, it seems plausible. In the 2014 election, the TRS took 34.3% of the vote share for 63 seats, the Congress 25.2% (21) and the TDP 14.7% (15). Based on the 2014 returns, 13 TRS seats would flip if you added the Congress and TDP votes. Thirteen more would swing if you assumed that much of the TDP vote was lodged under the BJP, then an ally, in at least three dozen constituencies.
However, that’s all too easy math. Anti-incumbency is not a sufficient condition for regime change. Remember, it did not work for the TDP when it gambled on a similarly chimerical alliance with the TRS in 2009 when the incumbent Congress regime was returned.
As a marriage of convenience, the Congress-TDP alliance (which also includes the untested Telangana Jana Samithi and CPI) is one that has been cobbled together under duress. The old adversaries would not have fallen into each other’s arms but for their dire mutual need. The truth is that the creation of Telangana has reduced the TDP to rump status in the new state, and obliterated the Congress in residual Andhra Pradesh (vote share 2%). Both outcomes were voters’ payback for the tiki-taka played by the two parties on the Telangana issue for two decades.
For the TDP, the alliance serves mainly two purposes. If successful, it will give the party a bridgehead from which to protect the vast interests of Andhra migrants in and around Hyderabad, the state’s economic powerhouse. It’s not entirely a coincidence that most of the 14 seats it is contesting fall in and around the city where migrants constitute about 20% of the vote and wield control of investments in realty, business, entertainment, education and health. Secondly, if the Congress barely manage to come to power, as the forecasts have it, the numbers are likely to give the TDP the whip hand in the assembly.
For the Congress, the alliance is a coming to terms with the loss of primacy in the state, and a gamble to get back to power with the aid of crutches. For the Reddys, who constitute about 8% of the population and dominate the Congress, it is a bid to recover pre-eminence in Telangana, which they have had to cede to the Velamas dominating the TRS since the creation of the new state.
Chief minister K. Chandrashekar Rao has sought to forestall vote erosion due to incumbency by making some tactical moves. The first of these was to trigger defections in the TDP, which reduced that party’s numbers in the assembly from 15 to two. The import of elected reps—and with them their local network of adherents—has aided the TRS in quickly spreading its influence into the rural areas. The mass migration of TDP cadres, particularly the backward castes, has left the party all but disemboweled while conversely strengthening the TRS.
Next, the chief minister did some clever gerrymandering by increasing the number of districts such that there are now at least 13 of them with a tribal population of more than 10%. He also conferred panchayat status on more than 4,000 small habitations, many of them hamlets of the Lambada tribe. This has served to wean away a traditional Congress vote bank that is very influential in at least 15 constituencies.
Ram Karan is a former joint resident editor, The Times of India, Hyderabad