When Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) sprung a major surprise by calling for early polls in September, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would win a second term. The decision was hailed as a “masterstroke” by many political analysts, as the TINA factor (There Is No Alternative) would ensure that he sailed through. Exactly three months down the line, things look completely different.
If the opposition was badly scattered then and KCR basking in the glory of welfare schemes like the Rythu Bandhu (Rs 4000 input per acre every season) working on the ground, come polling day, there is a "Praja Kutami" or the People’s alliance led by the Congress looking to upstage him. In fact, it looks like the Congress-led alliance has peaked at the right time and KCR revealed his cards too early.
Even a month back, it seemed like the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) was coasting through with the "Praja Kutami" partners not being able to finalise allocation of seats. But the turnaround has been very swift and the opposition grouping seems to have a slight upper hand come polling day. In the absence of any wave and swing, it’s usually the arithmetic that determines the winner and loser. And, the "Praja Kutami" has the arithmetic on their side.
The million dollar question remains though: would the unlikely allies – the Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) – bitter rivals for three-and-a-half decades, be able to transfer votes to each other? With the Index of Opposition Unity (IOU) greater this time around, the TRS will have to attract a bigger vote share in any case. But, is that even a possibility with the Telangana statehood achieved and the sub-nationalist sentiment on the wane?
Will KCR's welfare schemes be enough to earn him a victory in Telangana? (Photo: PTI)
Poll arithmetic in the past and present
Much depends on the arithmetic. Such alliances have had mixed results in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh involving the current protagonists in the recent past. While KCR has chosen to dub the "Praja Kutami" as an “opportunistic” alliance, he was himself part of a couple of such formations in the recent past.
In 2004, KCR joined forces with the Congress-led to trounce Chandrababu Naidu; later, in 2009, he was part of a "Maha Kutami", or grand alliance, with Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the CPI and the CPI (M). While the 2009 "Maha Kutami" didn’t manage to unseat YSR, it still managed to narrow the margin and give a scare to former Congress strongman.
In fact, it was the Praja Rajyam party floated by superstar Chiranjeevi which upset the calculation of the grand alliance as the fledgling party managed to corner 17 per cent votes to make it a three-way contest.
Unlike then, with no third alternative to choose from – but for a weaker BJP bereft of allies and a Bahujan Left alliance without any mass base – this election has become a straightforward contest between the TRS and the Congress-led "Praja Kutami".
In 2014, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti won 63 seats with a vote share of 34 per cent riding on the Telangana sentiment. Back then, the Congress was caught off-guard when the foxy KCR went back on his September 2013 promise of merging his party with the Congress, upon delivery of Telangana.
After losing some of their prominent leaders in the region to the TRS in the months before the state was carved out of Andhra Pradesh, and battling double anti-incumbency, Congress found it hard to put up a fight. That is no longer the case – and moreover, with the alliance with TDP materializing, some caste factors seem to back the "Praja Kutami" this time around.
Praja Kutami or the People’s alliance led by the Congress is looking to upstage the TRS in the state. (Photo: PTI)
For instance, the dominant castes – the Reddys and the Kammas – traditionally the vote banks of the Congress and the TDP respectively in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh, find themselves on the same side here. And with the TRS first family’s caste – the Velamas – too few in the state, this caste arithmetic would also work against the TRS.
But the TRS is banking firmly on its targeted welfare schemes to cross the line. And with the majority of the beneficiaries of the welfare schemes being OBCs, which make up over 40 per cent of the population of Telangana, they hope to counterbalance such a caste re-alignment.
In an election originally devoid of emotional issues, the entry of Chandrababu Naidu and his party into the "Praja Kutami" provided KCR with a chance to rake up the Telangana sentiment once again. But it ran the risk of diminishing returns and counter-mobilisation from the settlers in Telangana that make up close to 20 per cent of the voters.
In 2014, the TDP had a vote share of nearly 15 per cent and the YSR Congress (YSRC) – which isn’t contesting this time around – got 4 per cent. If the settlers that voted for the YSRC in 2014 were to vote for the Congress-TDP alliance on account of such a counter-mobilisation, it would be an added bonus for the "Praja Kutami". On the other hand, if those votes go for the TRS on account of tactical voting trumping regionalism, that would provide a boost to the TRS.
One thing is for sure – TRS would need more than the 34 per cent votes they won last time around to win this time. But they are assured of the support of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in the event of falling marginally short. The AIMIM is tipped to hold on to its six seats in Old Hyderabad and the Secunderabad seat; they become crucial if a hung verdict is thrown up.
But, it also remains to be seen if there is any tactical voting between the TRS and the BJP. Indian elections have witnessed many such strange voting patterns and cadre-based parties are often successful in implementing these tactics. The BJP doesn’t have much stakes in this election but they would certainly require the TRS to back them in a hung scenario in the 2019 general election.
In 2014, in an alliance with the TDP and with the "Modi wave" in full swing, the BJP managed merely 7 per cent votes.
Telangana Assembly polls 2018: Who will the winner be? (Photo: PTI)
Beyond the numbers
The TRS’ biggest handicap seems to be the anti-incumbency prevailing at the local level. By issuing tickets to almost every incumbent MLA, the TRS has taken a huge gamble – although it was initially assumed to be an advantage. And, notwithstanding the fact that many people might be happy with the welfare schemes in place, anger against the local MLA might be a cause of worry for the TRS.
KCR would hope that majority of the votes are cast on his account than the MLA in individual constituencies. An even bigger worry for KCR would be the likelihood of defections post elections as the TRS has around two dozen MLAs poached from the opposition ranks post-2014. It may not require a lot of coaxing for some of them to go back to their original party in a favourable scenario.
There’s also the fear of welfare schemes backfiring on the TRS. Despite the methodical targeting of schemes, beneficiaries are still likely to be much lesser than the people left out. Moreover, the manifesto of the Congress promises an equally bewitching fare of welfare schemes and it could prompt even some of the beneficiaries to switch over for a better deal.
Silly political moves like the arrest of Congress Working President Revanth Reddy in a post-midnight raid and the rap on the knuckles it earned from the Election Commission on the eve of the polls would also go against the TRS and feed into the opposition’s charge of KCR as arrogance personified.
As for the "Praja Kutami", apart from the question on the transfer of votes, they appear weak on the eight seats allotted to the Telangana Jana Samiti (TJS). But getting four official Congress candidates to withdraw at the last moment to avoid “friendly fights” with the TJS (except in Amberpet) comes as a relief to them and the cohesiveness of the coalition.
What will the poll outcome be?
Well, it’s tough to make a clear-cut prediction but if poll arithmetic were to be the determining factor, KCR might be on his way out of power in Telangana.
Also read: Telangana polls: Why TRS is still the favourite in an election that could go down to the wire