As elections are drawing closer, the backward Telangana region, witnessing a renewed demand for statehood, presents a picture of political paradox highlighted by a strong undercurrent of regional sentiment on one hand and a sense of uncertainty plaguing political camps on the other.
Despite a groundswell of sympathy for Telangana protagonists across the region, especially among the youth, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, espoused to the statehood cause, and its ally Congress are in a state of disarray, plagued by discontent, charges of kickbacks in selection of candidates and inadequate representation to weaker sections.
The Telangana region, which accounts for 107 assembly seats in the 294-member House and 16 Lok Sabha seats out of a total of 42 in the state, has a potential to tilt electoral scales as the ruling TDP is facing, for the first time, a combined opposition.
As part of alliance, TRS is contesting six Lok Sabha and 42 assembly seats. The party rebels have entered the fray in at least a dozen assembly segments while Congress also has its share of rebel problem in about ten constituencies.
Driving through the dusty tracks of Telangana districts, one often encounters strong views from the proverbial 'Man on the Street' favouring statehood but peppered with a sense of distrust over ability of political parties to achieve it.
Will this strong Telangana sentiment actually convert into votes in favour of the opposition alliance? This question, however, evokes mixed answers.
Summing up the mood in the region, P Anil Kumar, an engineering student in Karimnagar, said: "We want separate state to undo decades of injustice. But, look at the state of affairs in the parties promising statehood. There is bungling in distribution of tickets, open rebellion and allegations of money bags changing hands. At this rate, can we achieve statehood?"
The fledgling TRS, facing the elections for the first time, appears to have frittered away the initial goodwill following a string of desertions and widespread rebellion in its ranks over choice of candidates in some segments and allotment of certain other key seats to Congress.
In Karimnagar district, considered the nerve-centre of the movement for separate Telangana state, the TRS is facing a minefield of rebels who are in the fray in four of the six assembly segments the party is contesting in alliance with Congress, throwing up multi-cornered contests and threatening to split the opposition votes.
Internal sabotage stares at the Congress-TRS alliance as rebels from both the parties are contesting as independents in several segments in Adilabad, Nizamabad, Warangal, Nalgonda and other Talangana districts.
While TRS President K Chandrasekhar Rao, contesting from Karimnagar Lok Sabha seat, sought to make light of the rebel problem and dismissed the charge of selling away party tickets, a sense of disquiet was palpable in the party camp as rebels appear to be holding key to the poll outcome in several constituencies across the region.
"In the interest of Telangana cause, I had to be tough with some aspirants. I have no regrets. People are with me," Rao said amidst reports of growing desertions in the party.
Senior leaders like TRS women's wing President Shobha Rani and General Secretary J Siddaiah, who have resigned from the party, have levelled serious allegations against Rao and threatened to work for the defeat of official nominees.
The case of TRS rebel in Karimnagar assembly seat, K Mrutyunjayam presents a peculiar dilemma in the opposition camp. He was initially given clearance but was later asked by the party leadership to withdraw from the race in favour of Congress candidate and former state party President M Satyanarayana Rao.
Defying the party's directive, Mrutyunjayam, a defector from Congress, is in the race as a rebel with official TRS symbol despite being suspended from the party.
"My case illustrates how the party leadership has allowed Telangana issue to be hijacked by self-serving people and how the genuine cadre is left in the lurch," he told a visiting PTI correspondent amidst arrangements to distribute campaign material that carries the TRS symbol Car but without the picture of party President Chandrasekhar Rao.
Not surprisingly, the ruling TDP and its ally BJP are watching with glee the developments in the opposition camp and highlighting the 'cash-for-ticket' charge in their poll campaign.
TDP supremo and Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, who was initially worried over the impact of the combined opposition fight, is now keen to capitalize on internal contradictions and widespread rebellion in the opposition camp.
Dubbing the Congress-TRS alliance as "unholy", Naidu has been telling people that the opposition parties were only trying to "hoodwink" them by raking up regional passions.
"You have been seeing how their own partymen are raising the issue of kickbacks in distribution of tickets. How can these parties promise a better future when they are unable to set their own house in order?" Naidu told at a string of election rallies in Karimnagar and Nizamabad districts.
While TDP is focusing its campaign on integrated state versus separatist forces theme, the Congress, fearing a backlash in coastal and Rayalaseema regions because of its alliance with TRS, is forced into doing a delicate balancing act.
"We have not promised unqualified support to the demand for Telangana state. We are very clear in our stand that a few States Re-Organisation Committee (SRC) should be constituted to go into demands for smaller states including Telangana," PCC President D Srinivas, contesting from Nizamabad assembly constituency in Telangana region, said.
The TDP, on its part, is invoking the failed Telangana experiment of the late 1960s, initiated by former Congress Chief Minister late M Channa Reddy, to attack Congress-TRS alliance, saying the Telangana party would eventually merge with Congress after elections.
Amidst political polemics over statehood issue, the more pressing problems of Telangana like pending irrigation projects, power supply, rural employment and plight of farmers appear to have taken a backseat in the poll campaign.