Osmosis is a rare word in politics. But it could well define the sudden rejuvenation of the Congress party in Telangana. Its win in Karnataka, by decisively defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has given it an organisational fillip and confidence that has allowed it to become a contender in Telangana within months of that victory. This is partially because the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) has been in power for nearly a decade and has run into the inevitable Indian challenge of anti-incumbency, with dents to its strong support base. The BRS had become a formidable force by having reaped the benefit of leading the movement that led to the formation of the State, which was bifurcated from the united Andhra Pradesh in 2014. But many fellow-travellers and partners in the agitation parted ways with the regional party as it graduated into a typical single family-driven enterprise that thrives due to the support for its “strong leader” K. Chandrashekar Rao. What has kept the support base for the party is its emphasis on welfare initiatives that included a number of dole payments for various sections besides work in improving sectors such as irrigation, one of the key issues that drove the agitation for a separate State in the first place. But with the Congress managing to win over voters in Karnataka through welfare guarantees and seeking to replicate this model for Telangana, the stage is set for an electoral battle driven by competitive populism, albeit of slightly varying kinds. With the BRS coming up with a number of welfare and cash transfer measures to rival the Congress’s guarantees, the election could well become a referendum on who delivers welfare better.
Over the course of this decade, the BJP has sought to become a major player in Telangana and only the electoral results will confirm the pervasive theory that the party’s support base in the State remains limited to a few seats. If the Congress steals a march over the BJP, it could reflect the failure of the BJP to raise an agenda that appeals to the people of Telangana beyond its tiresome reliance on religious polarisation and touting the virtues of having a friendly Union government. This will also be indicative of the mood of the electorate in the southern States where electoral competition is moored in the politics of welfare and developmentalism and less in the hysterics of communal mobilisation, as evident elsewhere in the North. All said, the Congress might well have the wind in its sails to become a contender against a formidable BRS, but the electoral campaigns and how they sway the fence-sitter and the undecided voter will determine the course of the election in the State.