K Chandrasekhar Rao’s fortress, which appeared impenetrable until three months ago, has been breached by a man who is virtually unknown outside Telangana and was considered a non-entity in the state when the campaigning started. Led by Revanth Reddy, the Congress party has finally found the spotlight after a decade in the shadows in a state that it hurriedly created during the last days of the Manmohan Singh government.
The Congress won 62 seats in the state and was leading in two, as per the Election Commission of India (ECI) numbers at 8.30 pm. The BRS won 34 and was leading in five, while the BJP won eight seats. The AIMIM won five seats and was leading in two.
While the Congress was quick to hail the victory as an end to the feudal rule of KCR and his family, some political observers see Revanth’s victory as a return of Reddy rule in Telangana. They pointed out that KCR, who is from the Vellama community, had disrupted the old caste order to a great extent by distributing power among other dominant communities at the expense of the Reddys.
Congress strategists, however, laughed off claims about Reddy resurgence and pointed to the intense campaign launched against BRS by Revanth and his chief poll tactician Sunil Kanugolu. With the Telangana sentiment losing relevance in the last decade since the formation of the state, the Congress pushed issues like unemployment, corruption and social justice in a big way while emulating the Karnataka model by announcing six guarantee schemes in their manifesto.
Until a few months ago, the BRS was expected to return to power for a third term effortlessly. But as the elections inched closer, a strong anti-incumbency factor appeared to shift the winds in Congress’ favour. The elections went from a broadly triangular contest between BRS, Congress and BJP with BRS perceived as the clear frontrunner, to a close BRS-Congress fight.
The Congress projected KCR and his family as an antithesis to the Telangana movement, saying they had faltered on the main promises of statehood demand – neellu (water resources), nidhulu (funds), and niyamakalu (jobs). The party also said BRS had betrayed Telangana martyrs and others who fought for statehood.
On the jobs front, BRS faced anger from lakhs of government job aspirants over delays in recruitment, particularly over mismanagement in the Telangana State Public Service Commission (TSPSC) following a paper leak incident earlier in the year. Both BRS and Congress assured that they would release a job calendar if they win, with Congress even promising to fill 2 lakh government jobs in the first year. Congress also promised a monthly unemployment allowance, a promise from BRS’ 2018 manifesto that was never fulfilled.
Congress ran an animated campaign against the Kaleshwaram project, especially after structural issues came to light in two of its three main barrages. The party alleged that the Rs 1 lakh crore irrigation project was an ‘ATM’ for KCR and his family to make money. Congress promised a judicial inquiry on Kaleshwaram too in its manifesto.
The massive Congress victory in Karnataka put wind in the sails of the party in Telanagana. Indeed, some of the party’s star campaigners were top Karnataka leaders such as Mallikarjun and Priyank Kharge, Siddaramaiah and DK Shivakumar. It tried to replicate the success of its five guarantees in Karnataka, expanding it into six guarantees including monthly assistance of Rs 2,500 to women, free bus travel for women, 200 units of free electricity every month, Rs 15,000 yearly assistance to tenant farmers, etc. The focus of the election kept returning to Karnataka, with BRS leaders criticising the new Congress government there, and senior Karnataka Congress leaders hitting back.
In terms of governance, the Dharani digital land records management system was another major issue taken up by Congress. Alleging that the portal was being misused to enable land-grabbing by BRS leaders, and to deny financial assistance to farmers, Congress said it would scrap the portal if it came to power.
Another prominent issue raised by the Opposition was KCR’s inaccessible way of functioning, with Congress promising to reinstate its ‘praja darbar’ (public court) system of the CM briefly meeting with the public every morning and receiving their grievances. The Congress frequently termed KCR a ‘dora’ – a dominant caste feudal lord – to critique his style of governance.
The BRS, on the other hand, saw a considerable shift in its campaign style. CM KCR, known for his fiery speeches peppered with witty remarks, was conspicuously absent from media interactions and his campaign speeches too seemed toned down. He was replaced by KTR as the face of the BRS campaign, who made appearances in a wide range of regional and national media portals and also in videos of Instagram and YouTube content creators. The BRS spent huge amounts of money on social media influencers to create content in their favour.
Hitting back at Congress’ corruption allegations, KTR and other BRS leaders repeatedly referred to the party as ‘Scamgress’, alleging that Congress itself had indulged in scams worth thousands of crores. KTR said Congress had failed in the past despite having several years to govern India, and that it had also failed the people of Telangana by delaying the state’s formation.
The BJP, meanwhile, saw a leadership crisis very close to the elections, and Kishan Reddy replaced Bandi Sanjay as the state party chief in July. BJP too focused on unemployment, Kaleshwaram, and corruption as its poll planks, but also banked on communal rhetoric, reiterating its promises to scrap Muslim reservation, revise Telangana’s history, and rename Hyderabad as Bhagyanagar. In the later stage of campaigning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the state several times for campaigning. Other big guns including Union Minister Amit Shah, Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath, and Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma also campaigned in Telangana.