BJP makes further inroads into Telangana with the Dubbak by-election win

BJP workers celebrate in Hyderabad. On 10 November, Madhavaneni Raghunandan Rao, the BJP candidate, defeated the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s Solipeta Sujatha by 1,079 votes in the Dubbak by-election. PTI
24 November, 2020

On 10 November, the Bharatiya Janata Party won the by-election to the Dubbak assembly constituency in Telangana, making further inroads into the state. Madhavaneni Raghunandan Rao, the BJP candidate, defeated the Telangana Rashtra Samithi’s Solipeta Sujatha by 1,079 votes. The BJP also edged ahead in vote share, winning 38.47 percent of votes cast to the TRS share of 37.82.

The defeat is a setback for Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, the Telangana chief minister, commonly known as KCR. The ruling TRS was confident of retaining Dubbak, as evidenced by statements from senior party members. In the 2018 assembly elections, the TRS candidate, Solipeta Ramalinga Reddy, swept the constituency, situated around 110 kilometers north of Hyderabad, winning with a margin of 62,500 votes over the second placed Congress. His death necessitated a by-election, and the TRS gave his wife the ticket, expecting an easy win in a constituency considered to be a party stronghold. The loss is likely to force the TRS to introspect. It will also strengthen the BJP’s claim that it has begun to replace the Congress as the main opposition party in the state. 

“There was an opposition to the TRS and people voted for the party which looked strongest to take on the ruling party,” Muddasani Kodandaram, a retired professor who taught political science at the Osmania University in Hyderabad, told me. “Does it open up space for the BJP? Definitely. The cadre will be happy and will work with dedication. It indicates the decline of the Congress party.”

In the 2018 assembly elections, the TRS won 88 of the 119 assembly seats. The Congress secured 19, while the BJP won only one seat, less than its previous tally of five. However, the first indication of the BJP gaining a foothold in the state came in the 2019 general election, when it won four parliamentary constituencies.

The Dubbak constituency is located in the Siddipet district in the Northern Telangana region that is a TRS stronghold. The Dubbak loss is particularly embarrassing for the TRS since it borders three assembly constituencies that are represented by members of the ruling Kalvakuntla family: K Chandrashekhar Rao himself represents Gajwel in the south; Thanneeru Harish Rao, his son-in-law and the finance minister represents Siddipet to the east, and Kalvakuntla Taraka Rama Rao, his son and the information technology minister, commonly known as KTR, represents Sircilla to the north. A combination of unhappiness at the perceived autocracy of the chief minister, changing caste equations in rural Telangana and an agricultural policy that has angered farmers are among the factors that led to the TRS defeat.

KCR is a member of the Velama community, a small but influential landowning community in Telangana. The Velamas are called “dora” in Telugu, which means landlord. The Velama community’s hold over the rural countryside had weakened over the last six decades because of the influence of left wing politics in the region. However, since the formation of Telangana in 2014, their political and economic hold in the state has consolidated as a result of the TRS’ political patronage. This has led to a larger trend in the state of non-Velama castes, such as Other Backward Class communities, gravitating towards the BJP. Velama’s constitute a tiny fraction of Dubbak’s electorate, which comprises primarily of backward castes. Even though Raghunandan, the BJP’s candidate in Dubbak, is from the Velama caste, non-Velama communities voted for him. He was in fact a close confidante of KCR and a former TRS member who was suspended in 2013 on allegations of meeting N Chandrababu Naidu, the president of the Telugu Desam Party. He subsequently joined the BJP.

I spoke to Nimma Sanjeeva Reddy, the Dubbak mandal president of the BJP Kisan Morcha, which is the party’s farmers’ wing. A mandal is an administrative unit within a district. “Chandrashekhar Rao doesn’t want Reddys to progress in politics, he only supports his own caste of Velama and Muslims,” Nimma Sanjeeva said. The latter is a reference to the TRS’s alliance with the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the Hyderabad-based party led by the Asaduddin Owaisi. “The Kalvakuntla clan is very autocratic and arrogant and the party lost because the people here are upset that the constituency has not been developed like the other three VIP constituencies surrounding it,” Nimma Sanjeeva continued. “KCR represents dora-rajyam”—which translates to the rule of the landlords—“and his autocratic nature means that the people of Telangana have to do whatever he commands. The dora-rajyam of the Velamas which had declined from the 1950s onwards has revived since 2014, when the state was formed.”

I also spoke to Chinni Sanjeeva Reddy, the Dubbak mandal secretary from the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. “This place was a stronghold of the Telangana agitation and the TRS,” he said.  “The defeat is an embarrassing loss. We supported KCR since the movement days, but the cadre has got nothing. Only a few bigwigs in the party have benefitted.”

Further, the Telangana government’s crop regulation policy, announced in May 2020, has hit farmers’ incomes and led to anger against the TRS. The policy was an initiative to push farmers into growing crops which have greater market demand, and to replace the traditional coarse rice and maize with fine rice and cotton. However, as The Wire reported, it came with the threat of cutting subsidies for farmers who did not comply with the scheme.

Durga Reddy, a farmer from the Peddagundavelly village in Dubbak owns 10 acres of land and planted a fine rice variety on five acres, replacing the coarse rice that is the traditional crop in this region. He told me that he made a loss of Rs 15,000 because of low yields. Bandugula Rajaiah, another farmer from the same village owns two acres on which he planted the fine rice variety. “KCR exhorted us to plant fine rice and so I did, but now pests have destroyed the crop,” he said. Both farmers said that the agricultural policy had affected the way in which people voted.

“The Telangana government took a decision to grow rice and cotton, which are two crops Telangana should not grow. Both are water and chemical intensive. But the decision was taken because there is government procurement for both crops,” GV Ramanjaneyulu, the executive director of Hyderabad-based Centre for Sustainable Agriculture said. “The coarse variety is a short duration, high yielding, pest resistant crop and its cost of cultivation is low. But the open market preference is for fine rice. If the government cannot procure then the farmer has to sell in the open market, but open market prices are depressed because of the glut of rice,” he added. He estimated that the cost of production of fine rice in Telangana is Rs 2,000 per quintal, so the support price of Rs 1,888 is already a loss.

“There is discontent because incomes and prices are low and farm land has been acquired for industrial purposes,” Ramanjaneyulu continued. “On top of that this season was disastrous because there was a drought and then floods, amidst a pandemic”.

Land acquisition is also an issue that has angered voters in Telangana, and in particular, in the Dubbak region. Even TRS party workers are not immune to land acquisition. Chinni Sanjeeva Reddy’s family gave up seven acres of farm land to the government for irrigation projects. Chinni Sanjeeva’s family received a compensation of Rs 6 lakh per acre, though he says the market value of the land is now higher. “We gave up the land willingly then, but we are angry now because the value of the land has increased,” he told me.   

Another demographic that overwhelmingly voted for the BJP was youth. With educational institutions and workplaces shuttered due to the COVID-19 induced lockdown, migrant youth came back home to Dubbak. I spoke to 24-year-old Nakkala Naveen, a BJP supporter who was working as a project engineer in Hyderabad and came home during the lockdown. “I organised youth teams and we fanned out throughout the constituency,” Naveen told me, when I met him in Dubbak. “Our teams visited every household in the constituency at least three times. Farmers and youth wanted to send a message to the TRS for their arrogant ways.” The BJP also brought in all their leaders—from members of parliament such as Bandi Sanjay Kumar, Arvind Dharmapuri and G Kishan Reddy to local level workers—to campaign in a concerted effort to reach voters. In contrast, the TRS relied solely on Harish. Neither KCR nor his son KTR visited or campaigned in Dubbak.

Dasari Raju, the state co-ordinator for the National Students Union of India, the student wing of the Congress, bemoaned the state of his party in Telangana. “The Congress is a failure in Telangana,” Raju told me. “Even today the Congress has cadre in every village in Telangana, but the leadership is an utter failure. There is massive infighting in the party and the public doesn’t believe the Congress can be an effective opposition party.”

With elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation on 1 December, the BJP will be hoping to make further inroads into Telangana. E Venkatesu, a professor of political science at Hyderabad Central University, described the possible future consequences of BJP’s Dubbak win. “The political landscape in the long term will be TRS versus BJP,” he told me. “The Congress has been reduced to third place and in the near future there is no question of revival of the Congress. The party has lost its legitimacy and the BJP has got a strong leadership. It will be a tussle between the TRS and BJP and whichever party plays its cards right will gain the upper hand.”