Congress supporters raise their hand — the party symbol — in response to a prompt from Sonia Gandhi at a speech in Chevella in Telangana on Sunday
The clap of thunder shook Congress worker Mohammad Shamshuddin out of last-minute preparations for a visit by Sonia Gandhi, drawing his eyes to the heavy skies pregnant with the possibility of showers.
It was Sunday, April 27. Soniamma, as the Congress president is reverentially known to her supporters in Telangana, would land in the village of Chevella in less than an hour. And Shamshuddin and his fellow party workers knew that the cloth tent they had put up to protect an expected audience of 20,000 from the harsh 42 degrees sun that has beaten down on the region for the past few days wouldn’t help if the clouds let go.
“We can’t have people scampering for cover while Sonia Gandhi is speaking,” Shamshuddin said, his eyes nervous. “We need everyone to listen to every word she says.”
That has proved harder for the Congress than most had imagined in February, when the Lok Sabha stamped its approval on the creation of Telangana, India’s 29th state, after a six-decade-long agitation that saw multiple fasts and suicides by protesters seeking a separate state. At the time, even the BJP’s leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, had conceded that she could at best play Chinnamma (junior mother) to Soniamma in the hearts of the 34 million people of the new state.
Sonia Gandhi arrives at Chevella on Sunday. (PTI)
For the Congress, creating the new state was a gamble — the party knew it would instantly lose any chance of winning back the remainder of Andhra Pradesh in its bid to maximise gains in Telangana.
But on the eve of elections to the 17 Lok Sabha seats in Telangana, the Congress sits jittery, unsure whether its gamble will pay off.
Even before Telangana is born on June 2, the Congress is locked in a bitter custody battle with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti for its political control.
The Congress, in every speech and pamphlet, is pointing out to voters that it was Soniamma who delivered on the party’s promise — first made in 2004 — of creating Telangana. But TRS chief K. Chandrasekhar Rao remains the face of the agitation for a separate Telangana, and the party campaign is focused on the argument that the new state was created only after — and because of — the multiple fasts-unto-death and agitations Rao has led for the past decade.
“The Congress stood shoulder by shoulder with the people of Telangana from the very beginning in their demand for a separate state,” Sonia said, starting her address at Chevella, where the sitting MP is Union minister S. Jaipal Reddy who is not contesting this time. “We had to make political sacrifices, but unlike the Telugu Desam Party, BJP and the TRS, we never compromised on the interests of Telangana.”
Farmer Naresh Goud nodded, sitting cross-legged on a grass bank just outside the tent packed with listeners, as the loudspeakers blasted out Sonia’s address, the thunder easing even as the clouds continued to hover menacingly.
“KCR (as the TRS chief is popularly known) fought for Telangana, and Sonia got it for us,” Goud said. “Both want us to believe they are the better parent, and they’ve both done something for us, so it’s not easy to decide who to vote for.”
In a state where leaders often assume deity-like personas — N.T. Rama Rao, the founder of the Desam, played roles of gods in films that helped cement his image as a saviour of the Telugu people — the Congress is counting on Sonia acquiring a similar aura after the creation on Telangana.
“Sabse oocha Telangana hamara, aur hamari devi Soniamma (our Telangana is the highest, and our goddess is Soniamma),” goes a song that Congress campaign vans are playing throughout Telangana.
The Congress is also arguing that it is the parent that can better take care of the baby state’s needs after it is born. It has promised a 4,000MW power project, Rs 40,000 crore infrastructure investment and a manufacturing hub — ideas it knows the regional TRS, with only a handful of MPs at best, cannot offer the new state.
“KCR wants us to believe he is the father of Telangana, but what father is he when he knows he cannot provide Telangana the future it wants and deserves,” Shamshuddin asked rhetorically.
But in Andhole village, a part of the Medak Lok Sabha constituency where Rao is contesting from, grocery storekeeper Jaydev Simha can’t imagine voting against the TRS.
“If he hadn’t fought the way he did all these years for Telangana, willing to sacrifice his life, where would Telangana be?” Simha asked, before coming up with the answer himself. “Still in our dreams.”
The All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen of Asaduddin Owaisi has entered into an alliance with the TRS. The AIMIM, which has won the Hyderabad city seat for the past three decades, also enjoys support within the Muslim community in several other Telangana districts.
Back in Chevella, Sonia wound up her address questioning Rao’s credibility — he has danced with both the Congress and the BJP and had promised to merge with the Congress if Telangana was formed.
“How can you trust someone like that with your future?” Sonia asked. “You have a very important decision to make in these elections, important for your future.”
The dark clouds had cleared, without disrupting Sonia’s address. Shamshuddin smiled. “I hope,” he said, pausing. “I hope Allah is kind to us on voting day too.”
• Chevella and all of Telangana vote on April 30