Hyderabad: A long line of top BJP leaders, including party president J.P. Nadda, Union minister Bhagwanth Khuba, and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, headed south to Telangana this month to protest against the “undemocratic” arrest of state BJP chief Bandi Sanjay for allegedly violating Covid-19 norms during an agitation.
The BJP does not have much of a presence in the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS)-ruled state, but, according to political observers, the party has smelled an opportunity in Sanjay’s arrest.
The BJP’s fire-and-brimstone reaction also makes for an interesting contrast to the Congress’s lukewarm response when Uttar Pradesh party chief Ajay Kumar Lallu was arrested, also for alleged procedural violations while staging a protest, in December 2021.
In a late-night drama on 2 January, the police arrested Telangana BJP chief and Member of Parliament Bandi Sanjay from the party’s office in Karimanagar. He was staging a protest against a controversial government order (GO-317) transferring teachers and government employees in the state.
The sections under which Sanjay, along with 11 others, was booked included those pertaining to violation of Covid-19 norms regarding gatherings. Sanjay was also accused of assaulting a public servant during the fracas.
The BJP immediately called for state-wide protests, and when the court remanded Sanjay in custody for 14 days, the party’s central leadership went all out and sent top leaders to take up a crusade or “dharma yuddh” (to use Nadda’s words) in Telangana.
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Sanjay over the phone after his release and asked him to continue his fight against the state’s K. Chandrashekar Rao (KCR) government.
BJP onslaught ‘good for optics’, experts say
One of the first BJP stalwarts to arrive in Telangana was Rajya Sabha member and national party president J.P. Nadda on 4 January, when Sanjay was still in custody (he made bail the next day, on 5 January).
Nadda’s original plan was to conduct a rally but the local police denied permission, citing Covid restrictions in the state. However, this did not stop the leader from making heated statements to the press.
He accused the state government of trying to “murder” democracy, saying the BJP would launch a “dharma yuddh” to fight the “autocratic” TRS regime.
“KCR has lost his mental balance after the BJP made a dhamaka (bang) at Dubbaka and after Huzur’s (KCR) loss in Huzurabad,” Nadda said, referring to earlier assembly bypoll victories of the BJP.
When the Telangana High Court granted bail to Sanjay on 5 January, he was greeted by a distinguished welcome committee, which also included Union Minister of State for Chemicals and Fertilisers Bhagwanth Khuba. The onslaught against the TRS, however, continued.
Over the next few days, BJP leaders kept trooping into the state to campaign against the TRS. The list included Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Assam CM Himanta Biswa Sarma, and former Chhattisgarh CM Raman Singh.
Chouhan said that “BJP leaders are not biryani packets that KCR can eat”, while Sarma took digs at Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi, whose party, the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), shares an amicable relationship with KCR’s TRS.
“There was a time when people thought they could rule with the names of Babar and Aurangzeb, but those days are gone… Article 370 has been repealed and the construction of the majestic Ram Mandir has started. The day is not far when the names of the erstwhile Nizam (who ruled Hyderabad) and Owaisi will be removed too,” Sarma said.
Former Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis also arrived in the state and held a meeting in Mahabubnagar Tuesday.
According to political analyst Palwai Raghavendra Reddy, Sanjay’s arrest gave the BJP a chance to increase its visibility in Telangana.
“In Bandi Sanjay’s arrest, the BJP saw an opportunity to increase its base and popularity in Telangana. Sanjay being state unit chief, it plays well for optics, and there was every reason for the central leadership to plunge in too. Modi calling Sanjay is perfect optics,” Reddy told ThePrint.
A senior Telangana BJP leader admitted as much, on condition of anonymity.
“We saw potential in this whole issue and thought there we must take political advantage. The central leadership also kept following up with us and asked us for regular reports on how the issue was unfolding,” the BJP leader told ThePrint.
KCR’s recent focus on Sanjay
The TRS received a setback in 2020 when the party lost the crucial Dubbaka bypoll to the BJP. Another blow that year was during the Greater Hyderabad municipal polls, where the BJP won 10 times its 2016 tally. The TRS, meanwhile, failed to even cross the halfway mark.
In November last year, despite the TRS using all its might and KCR personally campaigning, the BJP won the Huzurabad bypoll. It was particularly crushing for the TRS since the bypoll was a grudge match between KCR and his former aide, ousted minister Eatala Rajender, who left the TRS and moved to BJP in June.
The BJP’s recent victories, although mostly due to the clout of individual candidates rather than the party itself, has galvanised the leadership to push the perception that the BJP is replacing the Congress as the principal opposition to the TRS.
Arithmetically, however, the BJP is no competition to the TRS. It has only three MLAs in the 119-member assembly, while TRS has more than 100. The BJP has 4 Lok Sabha members from Telangana, including Union Home Minister of State Kishan Reddy. The state altogether has 17 Lok Sabha seats, of which the TRS has 9.
Relations between the BJP and TRS soured further last year amid KCR’s tiff with the central government over the paddy procurement crisis in the state.
In November, KCR took a direct dig at Sanjay, who has been a vocal critic, and warned him: “I dare you to touch me, and see what will happen to you.” This challenge was unusual for KCR, who does not generally target Opposition leaders so aggressively or directly take their names.
According to political expert Raghavendra Reddy, KCR’s focus on Sanjay could be an attempt to divert attention from the Congress and its newly appointed state chief Revanth Reddy, who is also an MP and a harsh critic of KCR.
“We all know the hatred KCR and Revanth Reddy have against each other. In order to ensure Congress suffers electorally under Revanth’s leadership, KCR is giving more than deserving prominence to the BJP in Telangana,” Reddy said.
He also conjectured that the Sanjay episode took the spotlight off Eatala Rajender.
“KCR needed a context to divert attention from Eatela Rajender and his big win. The CM hence picked up a one-to-one quarrel with Bandi Sanjay, as a diversionary tactic,” Reddy told ThePrint.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)