Exit polls suggest that Congress is slated to sweep the state. Coming on the heels of the big Karnataka win, a big victory will underline the party’s resurgence in South India. But will it translate to Lok Sabha seats in 2024?
Researched by: Nirmal Bhansali & Aarthi Ramnath
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Telangana: The basic deets
Electoral history: Telangana is one of India’s newest states—carved out of Andhra Pradesh in 2014. Its founding father is K Chandrashekar Rao (KCR)—who left the Telugu Desam Party to form a new party. The Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) had only one goal—an independent state for Telangana. The state has held two state elections and KCR has won both. His party also swept the majority of the Lok Sabha seats in 2019.
Point to note: KCR renamed his party in 2022—changing it to Bharat Rashtra Samithi to signal his desire to become a national leader.
The state numbers: The legislature has 119 seats with 31 reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes. The majority mark is 60. In the 2018 state election, KCR’s party grabbed a whopping 88 seats. The Congress in alliance with Telugu Desam managed 19. The BJP only got one—a big drop from four in 2014.
As for Lok Sabha: Telangana also accounts for 17 Lok Sabha seats. In the 2019 national election, KCR-led Telangana Rashtra Samithi won nine. The BJP scored four—which was impressively one more than Congress. In the Lok Sabha polls, the party improved its vote share to 19.7%—up from 7% in the state polls the previous year.
Congress’ divided fortunes: The creation of Telangana has been most damaging to the party that once ruled the roost in Andhra Pradesh. The division of the state also divided its fortunes in both Andhra and Telangana. In the 2018 state elections, the vote percentage gap between the BRS and the Congress was a staggering 18.5% in Telangana. And it managed to score only 1.17% in Andhra Pradesh in 2019.
Point to note: Undivided Andhra Pradesh accounted for the largest contingent of Congress MPs during the UPA years. But in the previous Lok Sabha election, the party got zero seats in Andhra Pradesh and 3 seats in Telangana.
2023 elections: Congress rising
This is essentially a two-way fight between Congress and BRS—with the BJP playing spoiler/kingmaker.
The KCR handicap: As a two-time Chief Minister, KCR’s biggest problem is a rising tide of anti-incumbency sentiment. His appeal as the founding father of Telangana has worn thin over a decade. This time around, KCR is wielding a more blunt weapon: money—in the form of direct cash transfers to voters:
[S]o extensive is the spread of cash transfer schemes in Telangana that the Bharat Rashtra Samithi government has even crafted schemes for Brahmins – as well as castes and communities across the spectrum. This incredible reliance on cash transfers and the transfer of private goods in general is Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao’s main weapon as his party seeks to win a third term in the newly-created state. Cash transfers have an immediate and visible impact among voters in a way that traditional welfare – for example, building hospitals or schools – does not.
But, but, but: Doling out money isn’t quite a surefire winner—especially in the South:
An interesting aspect of what is unfolding is also what can be called the post-welfare politics of discontent. Some people resent others getting benefits while those who get benefits see it as their right and not something they need to be grateful for. Therefore, efficient welfarism is not a guarantee of re-election in some southern States
Also a problem: KCR’s welfare schemes have also generated a giant corruption machine—creating resentment among voters who are denied the benefits.
Congress rising: The party has played on the anti-incumbent sentiment—and promised a long list of welfare schemes of its own. Congress also looks more ‘electable’ after its massive victory in next-door Karnataka in May: “People started believing that if the Congress can decimate a behemoth like the BJP in the neighbouring state, then a repeat in Telangana is in the realm of possibility.” Also Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’. It may not have made a dent in the north—but it has impressed Muslim voters in the South—especially in Telangana:
The Yatra unexpectedly drew huge crowds. Rahul Gandhi was seen as a new leader, unafraid of Modi and the BJP's politics of divide-and-rule. He spared none, be it Modi or KCR. He unhesitatingly attacked KCR on the issue of corruption. He also hinted at his alleged underhand dealings with the BJP. Muslims found some solace in Rahul Gandhi's anti-BJP and anti-RSS utterances.
BJP’s epic fail: Earlier this year, the saffron party looked ready to knock Congress out of its #2 position. But a series of decisions sparked suspicions of a secret pact with KCR. The popular state party head Bandi Sanjay was suddenly removed in the midst of election campaigning. And the government decided not to arrest KCR’s daughter K Kavitha——who is implicated in the Delhi liquor case (which has led to the arrests of AAP leaders like Manish Sisodia).
Being associated with an unpopular CM led to a dramatic slide in the BJP’s appeal: “The Congress was smart enough to seize the chance to spread the message that the BJP cannot fight the BRS as both are hand-in-glove. It projected itself as the alternative.”
Point to note: The BJP has done its best to ramp up attacks on KCR—to dent popular suspicions of a secret alliance. But they have helped strengthen Congress—rather than its rival.
The exit polls: The results released yesterday predict a massive win for Congress. All the surveys predict comfortable margins—the upper range ranging from 79 to 65 seats. The rosiest prediction for BRS is 58. For the BJP, the total ranges from 4 to 10.
FYI: The exit polls also predict a Congress win in Chattisgarh. But they’re split on what will happen in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Why Telangana matters: Looking ahead to Lok Sabha
State election results rarely impact Lok Sabha results in the Hindi belt—where PM Modi has an iron-clad hold on the electorate. But that’s not true in the South. That’s why the outcome in Telangana matters more.
The BJP strategy: The party really needs BRS to win. It doesn’t want to deal with an energised Congress—coming off consecutive wins in the South—in 2024:
For the BJP, keeping the Congress out of power in another key southern state is important before the Lok Sabha polls, and it suits it to have a strong regional party do the job of containing the primary Opposition party. “The BJP wants to check the Congress’s emergence in any state, especially after Karnataka,” said a BJP leader.
An understanding with regional parties in states where it has failed to increase its electoral footprint is part of the BJP’s strategy. Sources said for the BJP, keen on mustering as many seats for the Lok Sabha, the outcome of the parliamentary polls is more important than the Assembly elections.
As for Congress: A win in two big Southern states would offset any loss in the Hindi belt—and make an argument for the success of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra. Interestingly, the party is making a national pitch even in the state elections—invoking the memories of Indiramma Rajyam (Indira’s reign) as an era of “justice, welfare and development.” Why this is notable: the BJP has used the Gandhi dynasty as a club to beat up Congress in the north. But the same Gandhi name has a powerful appeal in the south.
The bottomline: When she was assassinated in 1984, Indira Gandhi was the MP from Medak in Telangana. However, the Congress has failed to win the seat since 1999. So a victory in the state may be symbolic in more ways than one.
Yogendra Yadav has a good piece in The Print explaining the Congress turnaround in Telangana. News18 remains optimistic about BRS’ ability to survive the anti-incumbency storm. The Wire has a good take on the BRS-BJP secret deal. Economic Times looks at whether BJP will emerge as a kingmaker. Mint reports on Congress playing the Indira card. Frontline has a good piece on why the results matter for the Lok Sabha election. Shoaib Daniyal in Scroll explains why communal polarisation doesn’t work any more in Telangana.