Amidst an undercurrent of Telangana sentiment sweeping across the region, senior BJP leader and Union Minister Ch Vidyasagar Rao is locked in a keen contest with Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) President K Chandrasekhar Rao in Karimnagar Lok Sabha constituency going to polls in the first phase on April 20.
Considered a nerve-centre of the movement for separate Telangana state, this naxalite-affected district, having Karimnagar and Peddapally Lok Saba constituencies and 13 assembly segments, offers a test-bed for the fledgling TRS which is keen to capitalise on the renewed demand for statehood.
While Vidyasagar Rao, seeking a second term with support from ruling TDP, is harping on development plank and 'feel good factor', the TRS President is focussing on the neglect of the region in irrigation, power and rural employment sectors and telling people that only formation of separate state could solve the problems plaguing the region.
"Not a single irrigation project has been taken up in region though major rivers pass through it. The TDP government has deliberately neglected the region in all key sectors. A vote for Congress-TRS alliance is an vote for Telangana state, Chandrasekhar Rao told a string of election rallies in the region.
The BJP candidate, however, faces a peculiar dilemma on Telangana cause as his party had initially favoured statehood but had subsequently put the issue on the backburner in the interest of its alliance with ruling TDP which is strongly opposed to bifurcation of the state.
In the 1999 elections, the TDP had bagged five assembly seats, its ally BJP won two seats and the opposition Congress emerged victorious in six constituencies while Congress veteran and former Union Minister G Venkataswamy was trounced by TDP's doctor-turned politician Suguna Kumari in Peddapally Lok Sabha seat.
The outcome of the coming elections may throw some surprises in view of the changed political scenario with the opposition Congress, TRS and left parties putting up a joint fight and Telangana issue emerging as a key poll factor.
The TDP-BJP combine had polled 40 per cent votes in the previous election while Congress, despite going to polls alone, had bagged a vote share of 41.5 per cent.
However, the initial calculations of Congress-TRS combine that they would be able to sweep the coming polls appear to have gone awry following a large number of rebels from both sides entering the poll fray, threatening to split the anti-NDA votes.
The alleged 'bungling' in selection of candidates, the charges of 'kickbacks' in the allotment of tickets and widespread dissidence in both the parties have thrown the opposition camp in disarray, much to the delight of ruling TDP
In a majority of assembly segments, the TRS and Congress are facing threat from rebels who have refused to withdraw from the race despite being suspended from their parties.
"The daggers are out in the open in their (TRS and Congress) camps. The role of money bags in selection of their candidates has created a sense of revulsion among people. This will benefit us immensely," says TDP candidate for Karimnagar assembly seat G Nalini, a political greenhorn.
The case of TRS rebel in Karimnagar assembly segment K Mrutyunjayam presents a peculiar dilemma in the opposition camp. He was initially given 'B' form by the party but was later asked to withdraw from the race in favour of Congress candidate M Satyanarayana Rao.
Defying party's directive, Mrutyunjayam, a defector from Congress, is in the fray as a rebel but with the official TRS symbol while the party has suspended him.
"My case illustrates how the party leadership has allowed Telangana issue to be hijacked and how the genuine cadre is left in the lurch," Mrutyunjayam told PTI as he was overseeing his campaign material that carries the TRS symbol 'car' but without the picture of the party President Chandrasekhar Rao.
Karimnagar assembly segment, in fact, presents a rally of rebels with all the major players facing the rebel menace. Choppadandi, Buggaram, Siricilla, Metpally, Indurthy and Luxettipet are among the constituencies where TRS and Congress rebels are in the fray, threatening to mar the poll prospects of the official candidates.
"The choice before the people is very clear. It is development versus disunity, political stability versus instability and chaos," Vidyasagar Rao, who had earlier represented Metpally constituency thrice in the state assembly, said.
The political observers feel that a strong undercurrent of Telangana sentiment was being frittered away by the opposition because of internal contradictions and confusion in seat-sharing.
The common voter in the constituency is more worried about pending irrigation projects across Godavari river, railway line from Karimnagar to Nizamabad, water scarcity and erratic power supply in rural areas.
"We are in favour of separate state for Telangana. But, the political parties espousing this cause are in a state of confusion," said Kamalakar, an unemployed youth in Karimnagar.
Surprisingly, naxalism is not on the campaign agenda of candidates though the region is considered a traditional stronghold of PWG extremists.
"It (naxalism) is not an election issue, however hard the Chief Minister (Chandrababu Naidu) may try to garner public sympathy in the wake of naxal attack on him. People in this region want justice and are keen to protect their self-respect by achieving the statehood," Chandrasekhar Rao said.
Even the TDP and BJP candidates carefully avoid mentioning about naxalite violence during their election meetings.
Compared to the 1999 polls, when about 770 villages out of a total of 1,300 were identified as extremism-affected, the situation has undergone a sea change this time with only 400 villages being bracketed under this category.
"A combination of increased police pressure, spate of surrenders and encounter killings and growing resistance from villagers has led to a strategic retreat by PWG naxalites. However, we are not lowering our guard. We are ensuring fool-proof security arrangments to ensure smooth polling," the District Superintendent of Police Praveen Kumar told PTI.