When the Telangana Rashtra Samithi won a landslide victory in the Telangana elections in December and secured a second consecutive term, many predicted that the party would sweep the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the state as well.
But Thursday results would have come as a shock to Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao, who was hoping for a big role at the Centre after the parliamentary elections and was even banking on the possibility of leading a Third Front.
Not only did Rao’s party lose two seats from the 11 it had won in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the chief minister’s daughter Kavitha Kalvakuntla lost the Nizamabad seat by a margin of over 70,000 votes to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s D Aravind.
Telangana has 17 Lok Sabha seats.
When votes were counted on Thursday, the BJP secured four seats and the Congress three. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi won nine, with its ally All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen taking one seat.
Apart from the problem of complacency that is being attributed to the ruling party’s poor performance in Telangana, local factors seem to have struck the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s prospects, especially in the North Telangana region that is viewed as fertile ground for religious polarisation given the large minority population in the area.
The stunning feature about the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s loss in Nizamabad was that just six months ago, the party had won all seven Assembly segments in this Lok Sabha constituency with thumping margins.
However, by January, there were signs of dissent in the region, with farmers raising a flag of protest against the Rao government for not fulfilling its promises on increasing procurement prices of crops, especially of turmeric.
The farmers’ associations decided to enter the fray directly, with as many as 230 farmers filing papers to contest against Kalvakuntla. These farmers together polled over 30,000 votes.
Adding to this was the internal turmoil in the ruling party with regard to this specific seat.
The BJP candidate D Aravind is the son of former Congress state president D Srinivas, who is now a Rajya Sabha member of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. When Aravind joined the BJP a few years ago citing humiliation at the hands of the Rao family, Kalvakuntla, along with several of her loyalists, wrote to Chief Minister Rao to take disciplinary action against Srinivas.
But despite this history, not many even in the BJP believed that Aravind could defeat the chief minister’s daughter.
The Nizamabad seat has a sizeable Muslim population and with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen as an ally, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi was expected to bag the constituency easily.
What the ruling party seems to have clearly missed was the building discontent among farmers in the region. There are also claims that the BJP engineered religious polarisation here. The seat was so crucial to the BJP that its president Amit Shah addressed a rally in the area in March.
Political observers in Telangana point out that North Telangana has always been a target for the BJP because of the religious composition of its population.
The BJP, however, did not seriously campaign in the area following the 2014 general elections because it was in alliance with Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party in the state. It played second fiddle to the Telugu party for most of the last five years. During this time, the Telugu Desam Party, which was against the formation of Telangana, was losing its base in the state. In March 2018, party chief Naidu decided to break away from the BJP.
Following this, the BJP was keen on stitching an alliance with Rao’s Telangana Rashtra Samithi. But that did not happen.
By September, barely two months before the Assembly elections, the BJP’s central leadership decided to make the push on the ground for the state and general elections.
The rift between the BJP and Telangana Rashtra Samithi widened in March, when Rao decided to meet Opposition leaders in an attempt to bring parties across the country together for a Third Front.
The BJP then began a concerted campaign that saw it accuse Rao for holding an “anti-Hindu stand”. In April, this led to an Election Commission notice to Rao for allegedly calling Hindus “disgusting”.
There was also a perception that the BJP and the Congress had a tacit understanding to bring down the Telangana Rashtra Samithi in northern Telangana, according to a senior journalist in the state. “In Nizamabad, the TRS [Telangana Rashtra Samithi] claimed that the Congress had hardly campaigned,” the journalist said.
Three other BJP seats
Adilabad was the second of four seats the BJP won in Telangana. The party’s candidate was Soyam Bapu Rao, a former Congress leader, who had contested on a Congress ticket in the Assembly polls in 2018. He switched to the BJP after he was denied a ticket in the parliamentary elections. Here, the BJP seems to have benefited from dissident Congress workers.
The other two seats won by the BJP are Karimnagar and Secunderabad.
In Karimnagar, the saffron party was accused of blatant polarisation during the election campaign.
Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the BJP candidate, is a local Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh heavyweight. He lost the Assembly elections from Karimnagar but managed to win the Lok Sabha seat by a margin of close to 90,000 votes, defeating Vinod Kumar of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi. Kumar is known to be a member of Chief Minister Rao’s inner circle.
Observers feel that the Lok Sabha results could signal a big turnaround for the BJP in Telangana since it has improved its vote share to 20% from being a minor partner of the Telugu Desam Party in 2014.