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BJP’s Project Telangana: Hyderabad today, South India tomorrow

Smita Gupta | Updated on December 08, 2020

Step up, step in: The BJP’s national leaders were not embarrassed to be seen campaigning in what was a small local election   -  NAGARA GOPAL

The BJP’s success in the recent GHMC polls has been scripted by its top brass, but helped in no small measure by the Telangana chief minister

* Hyderabad has a Muslim population of 43 per cent, and its politics is dominated by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen

* BJP’s gain has been the loss of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi

* Telangana has moved to bipolar politics, with the TRS and the BJP as the only players

* The BJP deployed those of its leaders who do not shy away from making communally polarising speeches

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The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has just opened up a door in southern India. Its do-or-die campaign in the recent Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) polls, however, comes as no surprise to BJP watchers. With the growing success of Mission Bengal — a state where the party has been spreading its roots — the BJP is now intent on breaking new ground in the south with Project Telangana.

It’s a civic body poll, no doubt, but heralds change. So far, the BJP’s only real electoral successes in the South have been in Karnataka; Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh have thus far kept the party at bay.

The Hyderabad story, however, is different from that of the three states. The city has a Muslim population of 43 per cent, and its politics is dominated by the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), led by Asaduddin Owaisi, whose recent successes in Maharashtra and Bihar have given him a larger-than-life profile.

These two factors made the municipal elections in this metropolis an ideal starting point for the BJP: The poll sharpened communal divides, hastened the consolidation of the Hindu vote and established the BJP in an area it has been eyeing for long. The lines may resonate elsewhere in the state: Telangana has at least five major cities, including Hyderabad, where the Muslim vote accounts for 20-43 per cent of the electorate. The state’s minority population stands at 12.69 per cent, considerably higher than the 8.53 per cent in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.

Not surprisingly, BJP’s gain has been the loss of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). The TRS’s seats almost halved from the 99 it had won in 2016 to 55; the BJP’s tally rose from four to 48.

It has not been an easy romp for the BJP. If the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in undivided Andhra Pradesh and the TRS after the bifurcation of the state had successfully played the regional and sub-regional cards to corner the once mighty Congress, the BJP has had to struggle to make a dent in the region. This was despite the fact that its students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), had long flourished in the unified state. A leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) explains that ABVP members went on to join other parties because the BJP was never seen as a major player in the region.

“Many of those who came out of the ABVP in Andhra Pradesh and later Telangana and had political ambitions felt that joining the BJP would not pay them much dividend. So they parked themselves in the TDP and later in the TRS,” the RSS member says. In Telangana, former ABVP workers and those who were a part of the RSS teachers’ organisation joined the TRS. For them to join a resurgent BJP — return to the mother ship — would be a smooth move.

If the BJP’s target is the decimation of regional politics, it was ably assisted by TRS supremo and chief minister KC Chandrashekhar Rao, who has been working to wipe out his rivals — the Congress and the TDP — ever since he came to power in 2014. The BJP swiftly occupied the vacuum that he created in these municipal polls.

The TDP and the Congress have been decimated. In the GHMC elections, the TDP drew a blank and the Congress, which was considered the principal Opposition, ended up with only a couple of seats. From providing a multi-party political setting with four major players, Telangana has moved to bipolar politics, with the TRS and the BJP as the only players.

The BJP’s success has been scripted by its top brass, but helped in no small measure by the Telangana chief minister. By encouraging MLAs from the TDP and the Congress to defect to his party, Rao has ensured the ruin of the two rival parties and the concurrent rise of the BJP.

Indeed, he appears to have taken a leaf out of Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee’s playbook. She, too, ensured the virtual wiping out of the Left Parties and the Congress, both by engineering defections and harassment of the rank and file of these parties. These moves helped create space for the BJP, which began to be seen as a sanctuary for political workers of all hues.

Little wonder then that with its growth in West Bengal, the BJP’s national leaders were not embarrassed to be seen campaigning in what was a small local election. Hyderabad was going to create the path to eventual political power in Telangana. BJP president Jagat Prasad Nadda, who campaigned along with the party’s powerful Union home minister, Amit Shah, in Hyderabad, was quite open about his party’s motives. In his election speeches he said his party’s aim was to capture the Hyderabad corporation so that it could win Telengana in the next state Assembly polls, slated to be held in 2023.

The BJP also deployed those of its leaders who do not shy away from making communally polarising speeches — from Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath to the party’s national youth wing leader Tejaswi Surya. If polarisation was the BJP’s principal strategy, it also went in for some social engineering.

It selected OBC leader and Karimnagar MP Bandi Sanjya as the state party chief to send out a message to large OBC communities such as the Munnuru Kapus and Gowdas. Sanjya also enjoys the reputation of being a muscular Hindu. OBCs also happen to be those who live cheek by jowl with Muslims and have clashed often in the past.

Significantly, the BJP fought a municipal election on a national plank — and not on local issues. By focusing on polarising the polity, it also made sure that issues such as the BJP’s governance model or the failing economy were not debated.

Once again, it went on to demonstrate that no election is too small for its top national leaders. And that it is easier to prise open a door that’s ajar.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based political journalist

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Published on December 08, 2020
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