The Congress and the Telugu Desam Party forming Mahakootami, or grand alliance, in Telangana marks a significant realignment in Indian politics. Few parties have opposed the Congress as steadfastly as the Telugu Desam Party. Indeed, when the party was founded by NT Rama Rao in 1982, its stated agenda was to take on the Congress for its perceived humiliation of the people of Andhra Pradesh.
It was the only party to withstand the Congress’s sweep of the 1984 general election, winning 30 of the 42 seats in undivided Andhra Pradesh and becoming the second largest party in the Lok Sabha. The electoral battle is only a part of the story. Their rivalry was often marked by violence, particularly in the Rayalseema region, where, according to reports, 970 workers of the Congress and 560 of the Telugu Desam Party were killed in 35 years until 2017. Political and caste rivalries often overlapped, with the Congress dominated by the landed Reddys and the Telugu Desam Party by the Kammas. Even after N Chandrababu Naidu split the Telugu Desam Party in 1995, it retained its essentially anti-Congress character.
It took an event as cataclysmic as Andhra Pradesh’s bifurcation to bring the two parties together. After the bifurcation in 2014, the Telugu Desam Party was marginalised in Telangana, seen mainly as the party of migrants from Andhra Pradesh. Its condition went from bad to worse over the last four years, with 12 of its 15 legislators defecting to the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi and one to the Congress.
The Congress, seen as the villain of the bifurcation, meanwhile was reduced to cipher in Andhra Pradesh. In the 2014 Assembly election, the party failed to win a single seat and its vote share fell to less than 5% in a state that used to be its bastion.
With the Telugu Desam Party walking out of its alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party earlier this year, Naidu and the Congress realised their interests no longer clashed. Their partnership will help the Telugu Desam Party stay relevant in Telangana and ensure it is part of a possible Congress-backed or Congress-led central dispensation after the 2019 general election. It will also help prevent rapprochement between the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party’s main rival in Andhra, YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSR Congress Party.
The Congress, on the other hand, gains an ally against the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in Telangana and against the BJP at the Centre. The party won’t mind the Telugu Desam Party returning to power in Andhra Pradesh as that would weaken the YSR Congress, an offshoot of the Congress. And weakening the YSR Congress is essential for the grand old party to stage a revival in Andhra Pradesh.
Mahakootami has already received a boost with the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi, led by the Telangana ideologue M Kodandaram, joining it. But other potential allies – the Communist Party of India (Marxist), All India Forward Block and Bahujan Samaj Party – appear reluctant to sign up.
Now, the big question is: can the alliance of the erstwhile rivals work on the ground? Even if it does, can it defeat the mighty Telangana Rashtra Samithi?
Telangana goes to polls later this year.
The electoral arithmetic
According to a survey conducted by the polling agency VDP Associates, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is likely to get 41% of the votes in the upcoming election, well ahead of the Congress at 27%, the BJP at 10%, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen at 6% and the Telugu Desam Party at 4%. The survey, however, did not take the alliance into account. With the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi estimated to get around 2% votes each, the alliance’s combined vote share comes to 35%, which is still 6% less than the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s.
Another survey, conducted by the Telugu news channel TV5, found similar trends. It too did not take the alliance into consideration, but the combined vote share of Mahakootami still comes to slightly less than the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s.
To get a sense of whether Mahakootami can defeat the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, we should start by dividing the state’s 119 Assembly seats into six categories.
- Seats held by Mahakootami’s constituents in the dissolved Assembly.
- Seats where Mahakootami’s combined vote share exceeded the winning party’s in 2014. This is the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in most cases but it could also be the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the BJP, or the Communist Party of India (Marxist).
- Seats where the combined vote share of the alliance was 0-10% less than the winning party’s.
- Seats where the combined vote share of the alliance was 10%-20% less than the winning party’s.
- Seats where the gap between the combined vote share of the alliance and that of 2014’s winning party was over 20%.
- Seats won by Mahakootami’s constituents in 2014 but whose legislators defected to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi.
In 2014, the Telugu Desam Party and the BJP contested some seats as allies, and they likely benefited from each other’s support bases.
A difficult prospect
Mahakootami’s constituents held only 14 seats in the Assembly dissolved by Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao on September 6. If they retain the 2014 vote shares and transfer votes effectively to their allies, they will likely win 18 more seats, taking the tally to 34. Interestingly, this includes Rao’s Gajwel seat, where the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party together polled 51% of the votes in the previous election compared to 44% by Rao. Mahakootami is likely to field the Telugu Desam Party’s Vanteru Pratap Reddy in Gajwel who gave Rao a good fight the last time around.
To win the third category of 19 seats, Mahakootami will require a vote swing of around 5% in its favour and a corresponding swing against the incumbent. This will take the alliance’s seat tally to 53, which is seven below the majority mark.
This shows that just transferring votes to partners or gaining a minor swing will not be enough for the alliance to reach the majority mark. One of these two conditions, or a mix of them, need to be fulfilled.
First, a swing of 10% in Mahakootami’s favour and a corresponding swing against the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. This will enable Mahakootami to win most of the seats listed in the first four columns of the table above.
Second, apart from ensuring a full transfer of votes to their allies and a 5% swing, Mahakootami’s constituents need to win back the seats where their MLAs defected – 12 from the Telugu Desam Party, seven from the Congress and one from the Communist Party of India – as well as the two seats lost to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in bye-elections.
This is a difficult prospect if the VDP Associates’ survey is anything to go by. It shows the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s vote share is likely to increase from 34% in 2014 to 41%. So is the Congress’s, from 25% to 27%. This is good news for the grand old party as it means the defections have not dented its support. For its alliance, not so much: the Telugu Desam Party’s vote share is estimated to fall from 15% to 4%. With most of its MLAs and many workers defecting to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, the Telugu Desam Party appears to have lost the bulk of its support base.
The losses are especially severe in the Greater Hyderabad region, where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi made enormous gains in the 2016 local body elections. The party took control of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation by winning 99 of its 150 wards. It was a huge turnaround: the party had no representation in the previous corporation. The Telugu Desam Party’s tally, by contrast, fell from 44 to one and the Congress’s from 52 to two, reflecting a massive shift of urban, even migrant voters from Andhra Pradesh, to the ruling party. The only area where the Telangana Rashtra Samithi failed to penetrate was the Old City, where its unofficial ally, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen held its ground.
More evenly matched
Mahakootami may be able to give the Telangana Rashtra Samithi a tough fight in southern districts such as Khammam and Bhadradri Kothagudem, where the Congress remains strong and both the Telugu Desam Party and the Left parties enjoy considerable presence. The VDP Associates’ survey indicates as much.
The combined vote share of the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party in southern Telangana is 37%. Add the votes of the Communist Party of India and the Telangana Jana Samithi and the alliance may end up getting close to or even more than the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s predicted vote share of 39%.
Still, a victory for Mahakootami in Telangana seems unlikely. However, a respectable performance will put the Congress in a strong position for the general election, which will mainly be a contest between the grand alliance and the BJP, with the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s state-centered narrative taking a backseat. Putting up a good performance in alliance with a formerly bitter foe like the Telugu Desam Party will also likely bolster the Congress’s claim to be the fulcrum of a national alliance against the BJP.