Hyderabad: The Huzurabad assembly bypoll in Telangana has become a high-stakes game for Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao and his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS). It’s a test of the ruling party’s political supremacy in a state where the opposition is seen as being virtually absent, with the Congress left with half-a-dozen MLAs and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) having two in the 119-member state assembly.
Assembly arithmetic apart, the TRS has been facing heat from the BJP, which sprung a surprise by winning Dubbaka assembly bypoll and followed it with a redoubtable performance in Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation elections a year ago.
What’s also making Huzurabad bypoll, scheduled on 30 October, a big event in the state’s political calendar is the fact that it’s seen as a grudge match between KCR and his erstwhile party colleague and minister, Eatala Rajender, who is the BJP candidate.
After being sacked from the state cabinet over land scam allegations, Rajender went on to join the BJP and has become a prominent party face. He was even made a special invitee to the BJP’s central decision-making body, the National Executive, on 7 October.
It’s not often in the TRS that a leader — and that, too, someone who was once close to the TRS chief — walks out of the party in defiance of KCR’s decision (removal from the cabinet) and challenges him from the opposition camp.
If Rajender goes on to win the bypoll, it may encourage others in the TRS to switch loyalty, say party insiders.
For the BJP, it’s a test of its ability to hold on to and consolidate the gains that it made last year. Success in Huzurabad bypoll would validate growing perceptions about the BJP replacing the Congress as the principal challenger in this southern state.
Eatala vs KCR
Eatala Rajender was the health minister in KCR’s cabinet until May this year, when he was shown the door over allegations of encroachment. Following a complaint on 30 April from a group of farmers, the CM ordered an inquiry. The report was submitted within a matter of a few hours, and Rajender was stripped off his ministry in a day.
Rajender quit the TRS a month later and moved to the BJP.
According to sources, the relationship between the two soured over the last few years, with Rajender raising concerns over KCR’s governance approach.
When he quit the TRS, Rajender pointed out how being a minister in KCR’s cabinet was worse than “being a slave”. He added that there were differences between them over the CM’s autocratic rule. He alleged that ministers were not given the freedom to make decisions, were humiliated, and weren’t allowed to meet the CM without prior appointments.
He also took a dig at KCR for promoting family rule amid strong buzz at the time that the CM’s son, IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao, was set to take over his position.
Rajender had been with KCR since the early days of the TRS. He also played a key role during the Telangana agitation, which fetched KCR the CM seat in a turning point in his political journey.
In view of this scrappy split, the Huzurabad bypoll has now become a grudge contest. While the TRS has fielded its student wing chief, G. Srinivas Yadav as the candidate, the focus is entirely on the rift between the ex-minister and KCR.
Huzurabad is Rajender’s bastion. He was an MLA from the constituency before he resigned from the party and the assembly. This necessitated the election.
Analysts say fight about quelling dissent
Senior political analyst Nageshwar Rao said defeating Eatala Rajender is very important for KCR to send a message to anyone who would want to go against him even as Rajender tries to make the fight about his “self-respect”.
“Eatala has openly said that this is a fight between his self-respect and power… at least that’s what his narrative is. But, for KCR, defeating Eatala is very important… he wants to give a loud political message that anyone who goes against him, their fate would be similar,” said Rao.
“So, this is not just about tackling one Eatala but many such Eatalas in the future. By this, I mean the voices of dissent…” he said.
The CM has been at the forefront of the Huzurabad campaign in his own style. Despite his rare public appearances, KCR held a public meeting in Huzurabad in August. The party has reportedly planned another grand public meeting of KCR, sometime after Dussehra, but is awaiting approval from the Election Commission.
Other cabinet ministers and MLAs will also campaign in the coming days in a massive show of strength. State Finance Minister Harish Rao, who is KCR’s nephew, has been made in-charge for the bypoll. In June, Rajender had pointed out how Harish was also dissatisfied with KCR’s rule but was working out of compulsion.
Analyst Nageshwar Rao said the bypoll seems more like a personal fight even for Eatala.
“Had Eatala resigned from the (health) ministry when there was criticism for Covid management in the state or during the TSRTC (State Road Transport Corporation) workers strike expressing dissent over KCR’s rule, things would have been different… the fight would have looked like it was against injustice,” said Rao.
“He spoke against him (KCR) after he was sacked over land grab allegations. So now, it is more like a personal thing between the two,” he added.
But the analyst highlighted that Rajender’s win is not going to deter KCR’s government or make any impact. “One MLA cannot really shake things,” he said.
Senior political analyst Telakapalli Ravi said KCR already gave a clear signal when he sacked Rajender that he won’t “tolerate” any kind of disobedience. “And by defeating Eatala, KCR wants to give a louder message. His investment into the poll shows that,” Ravi said.
Fighting the BJP as well
Eatala Rajender’s association with the BJP is dominating the discourse around the poll equally. The former state minister is said to have a pro-Left mindset, but his allegiance shift will make things tricky for him.
As for the party, it has been slowly establishing itself in Telangana. Its first major win was the Dubbaka bypoll, where it defeated the ruling TRS — even if a larger share of the credit would go to the candidate Raghunandan Rao’s strength in the constituency.
However, the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Poll last year, where it won 10 times more than its 2016 tally, was a massive declaration of ambition.
Now, with Rajender’s stronghold in the constituency — he hails from the backward ‘Mudhiraju’ community, and there is significant Dalit population in Huzurabad — the party is confident of a win in this bypoll too. It has also been in an aggressive campaign mode.
State unit chief Bandi Sanjay, an articulate and staunch critic of KCR, started a month-long walkathon in certain parts of the state in July and ended it in Husnabad — just 25 km from Huzurabad.
Former Chattisgarh CM Raman Singh also joined Sanjay’s walkathon in September.
In September, Union Home Minister Amit Shah held a public meeting in Nirmal district on Telangana Liberation Day. Shah praised Rajender, who was also present on the stage, and asked people of the state to choose a “hard working” candidate like Eatala over TRS’ “money, muscle power”.
While analysts point out that Eatala’s strength in Huzurabad cannot be discounted or ignored, he also carries the weight of his alignment with the BJP.
According to Ravi, BJP is totally relying on Rajender’s charisma.
“Another factor which will be considered now is what has the central BJP leadership done for Telangana? In the past, Eatala himself criticised the BJP central leadership on remdesivir issues or medical college for state. Now, amid all this, will he be able to convince people that BJP will work for Telangana… is the question,” Nageshwar Rao said.