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.”