BJP Slowly and Steadily Made Inroads Into Telangana in 2021, But Needs New Narrative in 2022 to Battle KCR

After losing deposits and winning just one assembly seat in 2018, the BJP was labelled as a party that had no future in Telangana. But it stunned everyone in 2019 by winning four of the 17 Lok Sabha constituencies in the state. The biggest headline was from Nizamabad district where the chief minister’s daughter and MP, K Kavitha, lost to Arvind Dharmapuri. The Bharatiya Janata Party also went on to win two seats in North Telangana, Adilabad, and Karimnagar, which was otherwise considered to be the bastion of the ruling TRS since the days of the Telangana movement.

From that humble beginning, the BJP revved up its engine by winning the Dubbaka bypolls in 2020, and followed it up with a doughty performance in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections where it came second by bagging 48 wards. The ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which had won 99 wards in 2016, lost its deposits heavily in the urban areas and managed to win only 56 of the total 150 wards. But political experts believe the biggest setback for the pink party was in the recently held Huzurabad bypolls where chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao lost to his former aide Eatala Rajender, despite going all-out with election campaigning and announcing the Dalita Bandhu scheme with the promise of providing finance up to Rs 10 lakh to Dalit families.

Factors behind BJP’s rise

Though political experts argue that the BJP could bag Huzurabad only because of the sympathy votes riding behind a six-time MLA like Eatala Rajender, the saffron party is slowly but steadily creating a perception that it is the sole challenger to the TRS. The Congress, which on paper is the second-largest party in Telangana, had won 19 seats in 2018 but has now come down to just six MLAs owing to defections and internal rifts.

Political expert Professor Ajay Gudavarthy says the BJP’s steady progress can be attributed to its multi-pronged strategy backed by strong leadership at the Centre.

“Polarisation has always been the BJP’s most effective electoral strategy and its efficacy was already seen in the GHMC elections. It is also likely to have a certain impact in areas like Nirmal, Nizamabad, Nalgonda, and Warangal, which have a subterranean Hindu-Muslim discourse,” he said.

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When Telangana BJP president Bandi Sanjay makes statements like “I will conduct surgical strikes in the Old City to eliminate illegal Rohingyas and Pakistanis shielded by Owaisi” and “Hyderabad will turn into Bhagyanagar”, they are not off-the-cuff remarks made in the heat of the moment but a conscious attempt to chisel his image as the protector of Hindus.

Bandi Sanjay’s ferocious campaigning style, his ability to deliver and mobilise party workers from lower to top level have been among the major reasons why he was handpicked by Amit Shah to reinvent the party in Telangana.

The BJP’s social engineering exercise with the OBC community, which forms 56% of Telangana’s population, has also been building some momentum on the ground, say experts.

“As opposed to the dynasty politics that KCR is associated with, the BJP has given strong representation to the OBC community. State BJP president Bandi Sanjay is from the same community and so was his predecessor K Laxman, currently the BJP’s National OBC Morcha president,” Gudavarthy added.

According to party insiders, a part of this strategy also involves giving space to disgruntled but locally influential TRS and Congress leaders to build its cadre on the ground. Both Eatala Rajender and Dubbaka MLA Raghunandan Rao switched to the BJP after being “let down by the TRS”. BJP MP Arvind Dharmapuri claims in the coming days several disgruntled TRS leaders are slated to join the saffron party.

“Our strategy is to go for micro-management of elections ensuring support from all communities whether OBCs, STs, Dalits, Lingayats or Brahmins. These communities have been denied the due respect and political representation they deserve. The BJP’s social engineering experiment promises inclusivity and equal opportunities to everyone despite their population census,” said BJP leader N Ramchander Rao.

Who is KCR’s main opposition?

The TRS has always maintained issue-based support with the Narendra Modi government since 2014, but the recent flashpoint over the paddy procurement issue has forced KCR to break away from a non-confrontational approach. In November, he even sat on a dharna, his first public protest as CM in seven years, and once again hinted at forming a federal front with like-minded parties to fight the “anti-farmer Modi government”.

Though he refuses to acknowledge the BJP as a formidable opposition, analysts say KCR now personally attacking it is an indication that the TRS chief may be worried about the saffron party’s rise.

“KCR keeps strategising but has neither taken a firm position against the Centre nor has he seriously initiated talks with like-minded leaders for a federal front. He has always been inconsistent in his approach. And the saffron party is gaining from this pusillanimity of the TRS,” says senior journalist Nageshwar Rao.

Senior journalist Saya Sekhar argues that the Telangana CM is laying the ground to split the anti-incumbency vote between the Congress and BJP.

“By projecting the BJP as the main rival, KCR is making a calculated move to scuttle the Congress, which has a significant presence in 70-80 constituencies. With a growing focus from the TRS, the BJP is all charged up,” he added.

In addition to that, KCR is also trying to shed his image of being “inaccessible” and “arrogant”. Two TRS leaders who didn’t wish to be named told this reporter that the party chief is now actively holding meetings with all MLAs and instructing them to “go all-out against Centre, especially over the paddy issue” since farmers are the backbone of the TRS’s support base.

BJP’s upcoming plans, RSS’s Mission Bhagyanagar

After tasting success in the GHMC elections in which the BJP top leadership from Delhi, right from home minister Amit Shah, party president JP Nadda, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to Yuva Morcha president Tejashvi Surya led a high-voltage campaign in Hyderabad, the local leadership has been trying to bring the top brass in Hyderabad to enthuse the cadre.

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Telangana BJP president Bandi Sanjay recently told the media that home minister Amit Shah will soon tour the state for two days and will interact with senior leaders. The state party chief is also gearing up for his second phase of padayatra (walkathon) to expose the “unholy nexus” between the TRS and AIMIM.

Meanwhile, the RSS will also be holding a two-day conclave from Jan 5-7 to bring various Hindu organisations inspired by the Sangh under one umbrella. This meeting is likely to be headed by RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat who has vowed to rename Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar.

But will communal politics alone help the BJP to expand pan-Telangana? Unlikely, say experts.

“The BJP has made gains in pockets of Telangana, and a few areas in Hyderabad, but rural areas are not communally sensitive. So focusing on one narrative may not help the party. They need to capture the people’s imagination by talking about issues of development,” Professor Gudavarthy says. “KCR has done well for both Muslims and Hindus without compromising on his Hindu identity. He has also been intelligent enough to captivate his control over Hindu votes whether it is by performing yagnas or building one of the biggest temples in the country in Yadadri. Overall, to have a large presence, the BJP needs to have a strong counter-narrative, and unemployment is an issue that could be a deciding factor. The TRS is already facing a lot of backlash from the youth.”

But come 2022, Telangana will witness high-decibel political activity as all the three parties gear up for elections the following year.

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