By-elections normally favour ruling parties as they occupy an advantageous position to influence the voters by using all resources at their command – state, men and money power.
Losing a by-election for a ruling party is fraught with negative consequences.
The unpalatable aftertaste lingers for a long time.
The defeat of the party would be more disturbing when the debacle occurs within a year after the party came to power with a thumping majority decimating all the opposition parties into political non-entities.
This is exactly what happened in Telangana’s Dubbaka by-election, the result of which was declared late on Tuesday evening.
In Dubbaka Assembly constituency, where the by-election was necessitated by the sudden death of TRS MLA Solipeta Ramalinga Reddy, BJP’s M Raghunandan Rao beat the ruling TRS party (candidate Solipeta Sujatha, wife of late MLA), though with a slender margin of 1079 votes.
Here, it is not the margin of victory that is important, but the rise of BJP in the pocket borough of chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR). How did the Telangana BJP, now for the first time led by relatively inexperienced leaders, pull off this magic?
In fact, none of the members of the team is comparable in stature to the Telangana Rashtra Samiti leadership. BJP leaders such as Nizamabad MP D Arvind, Karimnagar MP B Sanjay Kumar, candidate Raghunandan Rao, who led the campaign, are low profile local leaders, while TRS is commandeered by veteran minister T Harish Rao.
So how did tragedy strike the TRS?
The reasoning looks unbelievably simple: It is TRS regionalism (Bangaru Telangana) versus BJP localism. Team BJP articulated the hyper-local so well that it struck a chord with Dubbaka voters.
The TRS banked on the sympathy factor to work for the widow of the deceased MLA. That strategy failed.
The BJP, instead of solely depending on the its core plank of Hindu politics, converted the bypoll campaign into a pure local electoral narrative.
Dubbaka falls in the district of Siddipet, which is the home district of KCR where he is seen as an unbeatable force.
Most importantly Dubbaka assembly constituency is located a short distance from the constituencies of Gajwel, Sircilla and Siddipet, represented by three pillars of the government, chief minister KCR, IT and Municipal Administration Minister KT Ramarao (CM’s son) and finance minister T Harish Rao (CM’s nephew) respectively. This fact has been used as a powerful tool to hit out at TRS by the BJP campaign teams.
How the Dubbaka constituency fared compared to the nearby VIP constituencies of Siddipet, Gajwel, and Sircilla has become the core issue of the BJP’s campaign.
The narrative by the BJP was that the constituency was not developed as much as it should have been and that it has been neglected in all spheres as the TRS leadership was more interested in creating safe havens for themselves.
“We highlighted this point wherever we went. This is the question we posed to everybody we met during the course of our door to door campaign,” said J Chandrasekhar, a representative of ProNamo (Professionals for Narendra Modi).
The ProNamo group, comprising mostly of software professionals from Hyderabad, campaigned for BJP voluntarily for two months. According to Chandra, their teams covered each booth area twice in half of the constituency.
“We did not take any local leader along with us. We worked voluntarily. We explained to the voters that we are not paid workers. We are software and other professionals with huge salaries. People believed we are sincere. We spoke only on hyper-local issues like broken promise of double-bedroom houses, lack of recruitment for the government jobs, health problems of women-beedi workers, etc. We even explained to the voters about the sources of old age pension they are getting. We told them that 90% of the pension is covered by PM Modi’s funds,” Chandra told The Lede.
“When we told the people about the broken promises of TRS government, they found a convincing reason. We told the youth about the fate of the promised one lakh jobs in government and unemployment allowance, they agreed with us. Since the campaign was run by the youth and non-politicians, it has gone down well with the local people,” he said.
BJP’s Raghunandan Rao, a former journalist, also struck a chord with the youth who are a disappointed lot due to severe joblessness in the state.
“A recent survey revealed that with 33% unemployment, Telangana is below the national average in joblessness among youth. Against this backdrop, Raghunandan also repeatedly raised the issue of unfulfilled employment promises of TRS. Rao was taken much more seriously than the Congress leaders on this count,” a journalist who covered the campaign said.
The BJP team, instead of making tall promises, cleverly paid more attention to demystify the TRS welfare agenda. This worked wonders, he opined.
State finance minister T Harish Rao was made in charge of the party’s campaign as he is also seen as the troubleshooter of the TRS. However, Harish Rao, the most popular leader in the area, failed to pull off his magic in the election.
He held around 500 impressive rallies and roadshows across the constituency. All this remained largely a stage-managed show. He had to gracefully own the moral responsibility for the Dubbaka debacle, after the declaration of TRS’ defeat. Compared to the 2018 general election, the TRS vote share shrunk by 16.5%.
Dubbaka’s Louder Message To Congress
The Dubbaka debacle, especially the rise of BJP in a TRS stronghold, has a clear message that it is not the Congress but the BJP that will be the future alternative to TRS in the state.
The BJP is likely to amplify this message to repeat the show in next month’s Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections, a prestigious election for KTR, son and second in command to KCR.
The Dubbaka debacle has delivered a double whammy to Congress. The Congress, the opposition party in Assembly, has not only finished as a poor third but also exposed its vulnerability that it is difficult for it to re-emerge in Telangana.
This is set to pave the path for the arrival of BJP in state politics. The decline in the Congress’ area of influence is bound to benefit the BJP post-Dubbaka.
S Simhadri, a retired professor from Osmania University, said Dubbaka has all the potential to lead the state to take “Right” turn.
“Congress’ decline looks unstoppable. The aggressive and innovative campaign styles the BJP is deploying are bound to enthuse the disillusioned youth in the absence of other voices. Dubbaka has demonstrated this unquestionably,” Professor Simhadri said.
Telangana’s people have never been favourably disposed towards the BJP. And the region has never been amenable to the emotive planks of the saffron party in the past. Whether Advani’s Rath Yatra, Vajpayee’s NDA government or Narendra Modi’s entry, nothing thus far could enthuse the voter of Telangana.
If the message of the Dubbaka debacle, that Congress cannot be revived in the state, is understood by the people across Telangana, voters are likely to take the saffron party as the dependable alternative to TRS.
It is clear that Dubbaka had all the favourable conditions to defeat the ruling TRS. But the Congress failed to rise up to the occasion while a former protégé of KCR hit the bull’s eye as a BJP candidate.
What is more glaring is the Congress’ inability to reinvent itself like the BJP to steal the thunder from TRS. BJP had a well-planned strategy and launched the campaign much before other parties did. The party could rope in scores of youth from Hyderabad who campaigned for it surreptitiously in a non-conventional way.
The BJP hopes that the Dubbaka effect will surely be felt in the GHMC elections scheduled for December. GHMC elections are taking place at a when the city life is battered by unprecedented floods which has angered urban voters.
So, the BJP, riding on the wave of Dubbaka, is bound to replicate the Dubbaka campaign model to exploit the failure of GHMC, which is under the control of KTR.