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Telengana Social Agenda

Telangana's Unique Voting Trends: A Focus on Social Agendas Over Electoral Issues

Ajay Gudavarthy

While the results of the four assembly elections might come as a disappointment for the Congress, the big takeaway is the emergence of a distinct Telangana model of social development.

A few months ago, the Congress was depicted to be a distant third behind the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) and BJP. It began to pick up momentum soon after its victory in Karnataka. It began with a hope that started to fructify into a palpably favourable perception among the people of Telangana.

Defeating the BRS is no easy feat, given its track record of dispersing welfare policies such as Rythu Bandhu, Kalyana Laxmi, Shaadi Mubarak and pensions for the old, and providing water for both drinking and irrigation purposes through Mission Bhagiratha and Mission Kakatiya.

Chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s (KCR) government faltered on the front of providing jobs and by undermining funding for education. There was palpable discontent among the youth. The Congress had no effective alternative – until it formulated its six-point programme, very similar to the way it did in Karnataka.

However, this was the visible effect of a much deeper churning that took place. This deeper process could take on not only the welfarism of the BRS but also the unbridled money power that both the BRS and BJP had.

Further, the Congress won despite the change in strategy by the BJP to have consciously receded to the background to give the BRS the edge it required. The change in the BJP’s strategy began with the removal of Bandi Sanjay, a firebrand OBC leader who has to be credited with the party’s growing footprint in Telangana. The voters seem to have rejected this strategy of being taken on a ride.

The popular perception that settled in was that the BJP, the BRS and the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) were fighting the election together, making it a bi-polar contest, as against a multipolar one, which is how the BJP expected to project it.

The Dynamics of Identity, Representation, and Socio-Political Alliances in Telangana Elections

Muslims played a pivotal role in rejecting AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi outside of Hyderabad city. They did not fall for the bait of Owaisi being projected as the sole Muslim representative when the community was being pushed onto the back foot.

Muslim voters need to be credited for seeing through this strategy even in Uttar Pradesh; in spite of the somewhat dubious role the Samajwadi Party played in the Muzaffarnagar riots and the fact that none of the so-called secular parties stood by them, they overwhelmingly voted for these parties rejecting, Owaisi’s overtures.

It was mostly the educated and upper-caste youth among Muslims that was aspirational and saw fulfilment in gaining exclusive Muslim representation, but the common Muslim on the street rejected this simple-minded representational politics.

Gaining representation is significant in any democracy but not at the cost of social development. Pitching one against the other is how majoritarian-caste and religious-hegemony is maintained.

What is also distinct about the electoral outcome in Telangana was that the Dalits and the OBCs too did not stop at empty-minded representation.

Like in much of North India, the BJP began to woo the sub-castes within the Dalits and the dominant castes among the OBCs. It promised to appoint an OBC chief minister and followed it up by agreeing to an appeal by Krishna Madiga, the leader of an independent Dalit group called the Madiga Reservation Porata Samithi (MRPS), for sub-categorisation in reservations.

At the height of the campaign, Krishna Madiga shared the dais with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who gave a call to work under the Madiga leader to fight for the sub-division of reservations for the Scheduled Castes. On hearing this, Krishna Madiga broke down and was embraced by Modi.

This was a powerful script with tremendous mobilisational power. But again, this did not work in the BJP’s favour, as Dalits seem to have overwhelmingly voted for the Congress, and OBCs too did not stop at the question of representation. Again, it was a tiny section of what I refer to as the ‘mezzanine elites’ comprising educated youth and the employed middle class that was impressed with the representation being promised.

Such a spectacle could have, perhaps, swept away the Dalit-Bahujans in the North. The outcome in Telangana reflects a new and emergent faultline between the Dalit-Bahujans, who get mobilised around Ambedkarite rhetoric but are essentially confined to identitarianism, and the bulk of common voters who are prepared to look beyond and realise the need for greater solidarity.

This also is the intriguing case with the Muslims, where it is the middle class and urban Muslims who hanker behind an exclusive Muslim identity and campaigns centred on Islamophobia and Hindu-Muslim rhetoric run by the AIMIM and by Akbaruddin Owaisi in particular, while the common Muslim on the street is willing to go beyond the logic of polarisation and empty representation to lay a greater premium on welfare and cross-religious solidarities.

Another distinct aspect of the Telangana model of social development is that electoral outcomes are driven by a social agenda rather than exclusive political or electoral calculations.

Telangana is called ‘udyamala gadda’ (land of protest movements) and the demand for a separate state was driven by the ideal of a social democratic Telangana reflected in its slogan ‘samajika Telangana’. The Telangana movement was not characterised by an exclusive regional sentiment – it was for social development.

It is on this front that the BRS fell awfully short. The arrogance of BRS leader KCR became a sore point, reminding the people of ‘dorala Telangana’ (Telangana of the feudal landlords). The BRS stands rejected due to a sentiment of self-respect moving beyond high-handedness. Even if the BRS implemented welfare policies, its handling of day-to-day affairs was seen as objectionable.

Balladeer Gaddar had famously referred to this as landlords moving from their gadis (forts) to farmhouses. It is such a sentiment that made cross-caste solidarities feasible and effective.

Finally, in the run-up to the election, there was an experiment here similar to the eddelu Karnataka’ (wake up Karnataka) civil society collective in the neighbouring state.

Independent social organisations working on the ground around a number of issues such as employment, education, women’s issues, land, famine, water resources, child labour, health and caste, among others, came together under the banner of the Telangana People’s Joint Action Committee (TPJAC). The social activists campaigned on the ground to vote against the BRS, but not directly for Congress. They highlighted social issues of development.

Close to the polling date, the projected chief ministerial candidate of the Congress, Revanth Reddy, held a two-hour live discussion with professor Haragopal, president of the TPJAC; M. Kodandaram, president of the Telangana Jana Samithi; and Ramachandra Murthy, an independent senior journalist.

The three of them questioned the policy framework of the Congress and elicited a promise that the Congress would not indulge in high-handedness – otherwise, the social activists warned Reddy that they would hit the streets against him.

When did we last see such social activism have such an impact on political leaders? This continues to remain the core of the Telangana model of social development that goes beyond electoral representation. There is a direct synergy between civil society and social activism that can potentially influence public opinion and electoral outcomes.

In the long run, to counter both the kinds of consensus that seem to occupy the political horizon at the moment, one the Congress-initiated neoliberal consensus since the 1990s and the other the BJP-initiated cultural nationalist consensus since 2002, the only way forward seems to be to create this kind of resurgent space for social mobilisation.

If the Congress and other parties are to revive, they could possibly look to the Telangana model of social development. This, of course, for the moment is limited to the South and parts of the East, such as Bengal. There is no traction for such a model in the North, as there is no presence of independent social mobilisation.

What clues one could draw for the North from the Telangana model of social development could well be relevant in days to come.

Dr Ajay Gudavarthy, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, (JNU), New Delhi.

The article was first published in The Wire as In Telangana, Voting is Driven by a Social Agenda Rather Than Exclusive Electoral Concerns on December 6, 2023.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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