In Congress’s Telangana victory, five features that stand out
The outcome was a reflection of the deep anti-incumbency against the BRS, the party that championed the formation of the state, as well as the Congress’s increasingly rare ability to get the local leadership, narrative and social coalition right in a state where it had been pushed to the margins
New Delhi: In early June, Rahul Gandhi and Revanth Reddy launched the Telangana election campaign of the Congress from the most unusual of locations — New York.
Gandhi addressed a crowd of over 3,000 people in Manhattan’s Javits Center, with over half of those who came to listen to the Congress leaders being Telugu speakers, who constitute the biggest Indian linguistic group in the US. The idea was to get the state’s diaspora to send a positive message back home to their families and communities about the Congress and perhaps privately, mobilise funds.
At a time when few thought that the party could win the state, Reddy, surrounded by supporters, sounded confident and told HT that the state was ready to witness what he said was a decadal turn. “The Telugu Desam Party ruled united Andhra Pradesh for 10 years between 1994 and 2004, the Congress ruled the state from 2004 and 2014, and TRS (renamed as Bharatiya Rashtriya Samithi) ruled Telangana from 2014 to 2023. No one thought when they were ruling that they could be voted out. But it happened. This time, the Congress will come back in the state,” Reddy said, presciently.
On Sunday, in an otherwise grim day for the party, the only good news for the Congress came yet again from South India, six months after it had won the state elections in Karnataka convincingly. The outcome was a reflection of the deep anti-incumbency against the BRS, the party that championed the formation of the state, as well as the Congress’s increasingly rare ability to get the local leadership, narrative and social coalition right in a state where it had been pushed to the margins.
Five features of the Telangana verdict are striking.
One, it shows that the phase of sharp regional identity-based politics is over. This attachment to regional pride was natural both during the movement for a new state as well as after the formation of the state — and K Chandrashekar Rao was its embodiment. In the 2014 and 2019 elections, voters recognised that Rao’s persistence and leadership had been a critical factor in giving the people of Telangana a distinct political identity. The fact that UPA-2 had delivered on the creation of the state meant that BRS couldn’t frame the Congress as a party against the state. Belated as it was, this verdict, for the Congress, is akin to divine electoral justice after having been wiped out in the state despite having helped create it (while losing Andhra as well). For the TRS, an appeal to identity and a reminder of its role in the state’s creation wasn’t enough once the objective was met and time had passed. Voter aspirations had changed.
Two, this change in aspiration meant that voters weren’t willing to turn a blind eye to what was perceived to be widespread corruption within the government. BRS had seemingly found a formula for success — deliver on public welfare while accumulating private resources — in 2019. But as the corruption got more entrenched, as the lifestyle of local leaders became increasingly and visibly distinct from the everyday struggles of voters, and as local-level rent-seeking began to palpably hit citizens, the mood shifted. Anti-corruption, the Telangana verdict shows, remains a potent political platform. And while the BJP is successful, often, in framing the Congress as the hotbed of illicit wealth, in this case, the Congress succeeded in framing the BRS as the fountain of corruption, just as it had done against the BJP in Karnataka.
Three, a key shift in India’s governance, both at the national level and in states, has been the nature of the welfare architecture. Direct cash transfers have eroded the room for patronage and arbitrary rent-seeking, except, it appears, in Telangana. Instead of providing universal benefits, the state adopted a targeted approach to different schemes. The problem was not the targeted approach; the problem was that this provided room for local politicians and bureaucrats to play the role of intermediaries, extract resources and be selective. This, in turn, created resentment among those who felt they had been cheated out of benefits, leaving a fertile constituency for the Congress to mine.
Fourth, the Congress’s triumph shows that there is no alternative to strong local leaders. It doesn’t always work, for the party did project three strong regional leaders in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh too. But Reddy was also of a different generation -- his energy, dynamism and rootedness gave the Congress an edge. Picked by Rahul Gandhi to lead the party, despite having been in rival formations in the past, Reddy was able to create a wave that convinced voters that the Congress was a winnable alternative. He built on what was already a dormant but strong organisational presence of the party on the ground. Projecting this aura was key to ensuring that the disillusioned consolidated around the Congress, rather than either resign themselves to another BRS term or fragment towards the BJP.
And finally, the verdict shows the clear gulf between the political outlook of voters in north and south India. In the south, except in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress is a real alternative (albeit with the DMK in Tamil Nadu) and its narrative resonates and its emotional connect with voters persists. In the south, Rahul Gandhi is popular, Narendra Modi’s appeal is limited in swinging elections, and the BJP’s ability to read the local mood and craft a message leaves a lot to be desired. All of this introduces checks in Indian politics at a time of BJP hegemony, and while this is good, it also throws up a potentially concerning trend where citizens on either side of the Vindhyas define their political preferences in distinct ways.
But that is a trendline (and fracture) to watch for the future. For now, the Congress can pat itself on the back for coming to power in a state where it faced the real prospect of being diminished to the third slot not so long ago. Six months after their New York show, Rahul Gandhi and Revanth Reddy can smile in Hyderabad.
Get Current Updates on India News, PM Narendra Modi Live Updates along with Latest News and Top Headlines from India and around the world