Civic mismanagement, as much as communalisation, led to the BJP’s gains in the Hyderabad polls

Poll material and ballot boxes being handed over to concerned officials, at Nizam College grounds for the GHMC election in Hyderabad, on 30 November. The BJP’s gains in the polls could have more to do with the TRS’s civic-mismanagement and centralisation, than the BJP’s own communally polarising campaign. ANI Photo
24 December, 2020

On 18 December, the Deccan Chronicle reported that the Telangana Rasthra Samithi was set to elect the mayor and deputy mayor of Hyderabad without the support of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen. The elections to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, or GHMC, which were held on 1 December, saw major gains by the Bharatiya Janata Party and considerable losses for the TRS. Of the 150 wards, the BJP, which previously controlled only four wards, won 48. The ruling TRS’s tally came down from 99 in the previous body to 56, while the AIMIM retained its tally of 44 wards. The Congress, once a dominant force in the city and state, was reduced to two seats.

Senior TRS officials have claimed, in multiple interviews, that their losses were due to the BJP running a highly communal campaign. Their eschewing of AIMIM support for the mayoral election follows the claim that the latter is communal too. Several experts told me that the TRS is reluctant to seek the AIMIM’s support because it would present an opportunity to the BJP for further polarisation on communal lines. However, several analysts and residents I spoke to said that the TRS’s loss was also because of the party’s failures to address civic-issues, along with a centralisation of power within the TRS. This gutted the efficiency of the local government and led to the BJP’s emergence as the primary opposition, even as the TRS had defanged the existing opposition by engineering mass defections.

The 2020 urban-body polls in Hyderabad were among the most communal in its history. The BJP’s campaign was deeply Islamophobic, including several speeches by their state and national leaders which openly alluded to violence against Hyderabad’s large Muslim population. During the campaign, Bandi Sanjay, Telangana’s BJP chief, called for a “surgical strike” on the old city—a Muslim-majority part of Hyderabad—ostensibly to root out Rohingya refugees, some of whom stay there. Ajay Singh Bisht, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh commonly referred to as Yogi Adityanath, campaigned in the city, too, and asked for Hyderabad to be renamed “Bhagyanagar.”

Residents of several parts of the city, particularly areas with sizable Muslim populations, told me that the BJP had campaigned on a purely communal plank. “Communal feeling has increased, not very openly, but among the youth,” Mohammad Munnawar Chand, a resident of the Bholakpur locality in north Hyderabad, told me. “Asaduddin Owaisi frightened the Muslims saying the BJP is coming and the BJP too polarised a section of Hindus. As a result, the TRS seat share decreased.” But the rise of communal tensions alone does not explain the scale of TRS’s loss, particularly in areas where the communal aspect of the campaigning was less virulent.

The GHMC is the largest urban local-body in Telangana. In the 2016 elections, the first since the formation of Telangana, the TRS launched a high intensity campaign to sweep the body aiming to answer the question, “Who does Hyderabad belong to?” This was because significant sections of the city—geographically and socially—did not support the demand for Telangana’s statehood, making the city an outlier in the political messaging central to the TRS. Muslims, represented largely by the AIMIM in the city, were in favour of a united Andhra Pradesh.

The city’s residents who trace their ancestry to Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra—the two regions that remained in Andhra Pradesh after the bifurcation—were seen as outsiders by the Telangana agitation, and the TRS that was birthed from it. The Telangana agitation barely made a dent in the HITEC city, the IT and financial services district. By winning 99 of 150 seats in 2016, the TRS settled the question of who Hyderabad belonged to decisively, which also had the political effect of hastening the departure of the Telugu Desam Party, which is now largely restricted to Andhra Pradesh.

An important component of the TRS’s victory in 2016 were a slew of populist promises, including the construction of low-cost housing. The situation in 2020 was different. Activists and residents from various parts of the city told me that a wave of anti-incumbency was visible because the TRS failed to actualise many of its welfare measures. Even the flagship housing scheme was failing. “In 2016, the TRS swept GHMC on the back of its promise to build low-cost 2BHK housing,” Mohammad Ashfaque, the director of the Campaign for Housing and Tenurial Rights, a Hyderabad-based organisation, told me. “However, it has not delivered on this promise. The government has built at most 2,000 housing units, but these have not been handed over yet. This is one of the factors that went against the TRS this time.” 

Other civic issues have also haunted the TRS over the past five years. Musheerabad is the industrial zone of Hyderabad, where large industrial units like Vazir Sultan Tobacco and Praga Tools Limited and smaller metal and leather tanning units, cloth merchants and biscuit factories used to operate. Many of the factories in Musheerabad are now shuttered due to several long-term reasons, though workers continue to live in the same localities. In August, the government issued the Telangana Regularization of Unapproved and Illegal Layout Rules 2020, commonly known as the Layout Regularisation Scheme. Under it, a deadline was given for regularisation of unauthorised plots and layouts, after payment of a fine.

M Srinivas Reddy, the secretary of the Hyderabad committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), told me that, “Even in normal times, LRS would have been contentious, but during a pandemic, and especially when the city had suffered widespread damage in the floods, it led to a lot of anger.” Furthermore, an LRS certificate was made mandatory for selling a property or taking a bank loan against it. “It was costing people lakhs of rupees to regularise their plots, and people just do not have the money because of the economic downturn,” Srinivas said. He added, “There was a lot of anger against the TRS because the party failed on a number of fronts.”

Many civic activists and opposition leaders told me that the TRS was struggling to answer civic problems because the party had become highly centralised. Srinivas said that most decisions regarding civic issues in Hyderabad were taken directly by the chief minister K Chandrasekhar Rao and his son K Taraka Rama Rao, who is also Telangana’s urban affairs minister. “The GHMC lost its relevance because the decisions were taken by KTR,” Srinivas said. He added, “TRS corporators did not seem to have any actual power to get anything done in their wards.” The TRS nominated its sitting corporators in five of six wards in Musheerabad circle and lost all five to the BJP. “There was so much anger against them,” Srinivas said.

BT Srinivasan, the general secretary of the United Federation of Resident Welfare Associations, an umbrella body representing RWAs in greater Hyderabad, said that the effect of this centralisation of power was visible across the city. He said that this centralisation made the TRS fail in responding effectively to the COVID-19 pandemic, the floods that affected the city in mid-October and in everyday civic issues. “It was more of an anti-TRS vote,” Srinivasan told me. He said the BJP had merely become the main vessel for anti-TRS public sentiments. Referring to the recent victory of the BJP in a Lok Sabha by-poll in the north Telangana’s Dubbak constituency, Srinivasan said, “After the Dubbak loss, people gained confidence that the BJP could be an effective opposition party.” Vippa Srinivas Reddy, a TRS corporator who lost from Ram Nagar ward in Musheerabad circle, did not respond to any calls.

Anjaiah, a real estate agent, lives in the LB Nagar ward which was won by the BJP. He told me that TRS corporators had completely failed to provide for their residents during the floods. LB Nagar is on the southern banks of the Musi River, and was one of the areas heavily affected by the floods, when the Musi breached its banks on 13 October. “It rained continuously, whole areas were flooded, roads destroyed, and the civic officials did nothing,” Anjaiah said. “There was a lot of anger here.” He told me that the elections in LB Nagar did not see any markedly communal campaigning. “The BJP had simply been seen by locals as the most credible opposition party.” Referring to a string of defections from the Congress to the TRS, he told me, “The opposition parties have become empty or been chased away by KCR. Obviously, someone will come in to fill that vacuum, and that someone was the BJP.”

Like Anjaiah, several Hyderabad locals I spoke to said that voters had stopped seeing the Congress and the TDP as credible opposition parties. “LB Nagar comprises mostly of people from southern Telangana, from erstwhile Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda and Ranga Reddy districts,” Pulakesi, a lecturer in a private college who lives in LB Nagar, told me. “They are mostly upper-caste Reddys and OBC”—Other Backward Classes—“groups like Munnur Kapus, Yadavas and Gouds. Most of them voted for the BJP. In people’s minds the BJP has become the main opposition party.”

The only ward in Musheerabad that the BJP did not win is Bholakpur, a Muslim-majority area. Bholakpur has a number of leather tanning, iron and plastic work units. Chand, a resident of Bholakpur, told me he used to be a political activist with the TDP for 25 years. In 2012, at the height of the Telangana agitation, he switched his allegiance to the TRS. “The Congress and TDP are finished in Telangana while the TRS is going down,” Chand told me. “It has cadre, but the centralisation of power means that its workers on the ground cannot do anything.”

Harathi Vageeshan, a professor of political science at NALSAR University of Law, told me that the BJP largely won in the urban periphery wards with large populations of OBCs and dominant-caste communities from Telangana. These were largely communities that had backed the TRS during the Telangana agitation. “The Telangana Reddys sent a message to the TRS that the honeymoon is over,” Vageeshan told me. “They are communicating to Mr KCR that they are now in an alliance with upwardly mobile Telangana OBCs and middle-class forces. This is the social coalition working in favour of the BJP.”

A study of the electoral map of Hyderabad supports Vageeshan’s assessment. The south-eastern wards, on the periphery of the city, including LB Nagar, Hayath Nagar and Saroornagar, and the north-central wards in Musheerabad, were swept by the BJP. The residents of Musheerabad are largely the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and OBCs communities of northern Telangana. Ironically, the electoral map also shows that the TRS did well in wards with a large population of people from Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra. The north-western parts of the city, including Kukatpally, are largely home to Telugus from Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra. “The Kukatpally belt has a dense concentration of Telugus from coastal Andhra, up to 60 percent, enough to influence election outcomes,” Vageeshan told me. “This is what saved the TRS in this area. Kukatpally is one of the belts which is largely homogenous in its demographic makeup. Areas that do not have diversity also do not have tensions between communities. It is these homogenous areas that the TRS won.”

TRS representatives disagreed that their party’s losses had anything to do with civic mismanagement. “We feel the narrative of the BJP was communal and that is how they won,” Manne Krishank, the convenor the TRS’s social media cell, said. “The ideologies of the BJP and the AIMIM prevailed and they got their vote shares accordingly. The AIMIM retained its seat share, the BJP gained and the party that had nothing to do with the communal angle lost out.” Krishank refused to comment directly about the assessment that communities from Telangana largely voted for the BJP, while a section of those ancestrally from Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra voted TRS. “Honestly, the Andhra Telugus have seen the six-year governance of the TRS and haven’t felt threatened,” Krishank told me. “Their businesses were not disturbed. The Telangana movement was a different thing, but they are not seen as outsiders or settlers anymore, and this was an assurance given by the chief minister.”

Representatives of the AIMIM also claimed that it was largely communal rhetoric that had shaped the election. A senior leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me, “The BJP played the communal card bluntly and reaped the reward.” Speaking about voters from Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra who had previously backed the TDP, he said, “The TDP voters voted for the BJP this time round, and a section of TRS voters also voted for the saffron party.” He also claimed that the AIMIM was trying to directly address the BJP’s communal campaign. “When you are in politics one will hit back when provoked,” he told me. “MIM did not do anything on its own, but as a reply to the BJPs communalisation.”

Tushar Dhara is a reporting fellow with The Caravan. He has previously worked with Bloomberg News, Indian Express and Firstpost and as a mazdoor with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan in Rajasthan.