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2 cities, split by more than a lake

- The conflicting pulls and pressures at play in Secunderabad and Hyderabad
One of the Modi hoardings that dot the streets of Secunderabad but vanish in old Hyderabad

Financial analyst Medhu Ajay whistled at a BJP campaign vehicle as it drove by in the Secunderabad neighbourhood of Amberpet, larger-than-life images of Narendra Modi staring down from its banners.

The 30-year-old voted for the Congress in 2004 and in 2009. But Modi’s candidature as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has changed the way he plans to vote this time.

“In Secunderabad, we have to vote BJP this time,” Ajay said, sipping coffee at a roadside stall. “With Modi as Prime Minister, Secunderabad will truly become the world-class city it can be.”

Just 7km away, in the shadow of the majestic Charminar, Riyazuddin Sheikh clapped loudly as Syed Ahmad Pasha Quadri, an MLA from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), claimed party chief Asaduddin Owaisi had stood up to Modi like no other leader had.

“Never,” Sheikh said, wagging his finger. “Never can we allow Modi to become Prime Minister.”

Call it a tale of two cities if you will. Officially, they’re today governed as a single municipal administrative unit — Greater Hyderabad. But Modi’s candidature has yanked the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad into the convulsions of opposing emotions far deeper than the Hussain Sagar Lake that physically separates them.

From the parks of upscale Jubilee Hills to the sprawling Infosys campus in the Pocharam Special Economic Zone, “Modi” promises to fetch the BJP votes that could turn Secunderabad into its likeliest candidate for a win among all the 17 Telangana Lok Sabha seats that vote this week.

But the large Modi hoardings seeking votes for the BJP that dot Secunderabad’s landscape as they do across much of urban India disappear as we drive through the narrow lanes of the old city of Hyderabad towards the Charminar.

Instead of Modi’s projection as a development messiah, it is his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that is the key election theme in Hyderabad city, where Muslims constitute over 40 per cent of the population.

The Secunderabad constituency’s contours include some of the Greater Hyderabad region’s most cosmopolitan neighbourhoods and residential complexes brimming with young corporate executives — a target audience that has helped the BJP make inroads.

Bandaru Dattatreya, the BJP candidate, has been MP from Secunderabad thrice. One of the party’s only two MLAs in Andhra Pradesh is from Amberpet — G. Kishan Reddy, the 49-year-old BJP state president who even opponents say is likely to win the Assembly election again.

And as in other urban clusters with a traditional BJP base, Secunderabad has attracted “Modi volunteers” from the US and the UK who are supplementing the party’s RSS machinery in reaching out to an aspirational young generation. “We’ve all taken off from our jobs to come here and help out,” said Vijay Pallod from Houston, Texas. “We’ve been reference-calling voters in this constituency and let me tell you, the BJP has serious support here.”

At the Infosys campus in Secunderabad, software executive Avinash Kumar guffawed, almost choking on a sandwich, as he listened to a Modi jibe at Rahul Gandhi on his laptop during his lunch break.

More cautious than Pallod, Kumar accepted that Dattatreya faced a tough challenge in unseating the sitting MP from Secunderabad — the Congress’s Anjan Kumar Yadav who beat the BJP veteran in 2004 and 2009.

“But I’ll say this — I’ve gone on recent field visits from work to small towns and districts in Telangana where we have projects, and if the BJP has a chance of winning any seat in the region, it’s in Secunderabad,” Kumar said.

BJP leaders are also counting on a possible split in the Muslim vote against the party because of the decision by the AIMIM to contest the Secunderabad seat — it had backed the Congress in 2004 and 2009.

But the AIMIM’s presence cuts just the opposite way across the lake. Owaisi, a master orator, has in his speeches cautioned against voting not just for the BJP, but even for its ally, Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party. The Owaisi family has held the Hyderabad seat since 1984, and Asaduddin — the sitting MP — is a clear favourite again.

The AIMIM is arguing that a vote for the TDP, which has traditionally enjoyed support from Muslims, would help catapult Modi to the Prime Minister’s post. “Only the AIMIM can take on the Sangh parivar at a time the BJP’s threat is rising,” Quadri, the party’s Charminar MLA, said. “We’ll stop Modi, we’ll stop the TDP too.”

Modi, according to Owaisi’s narrative that many in the old city appear to have bought, will ensure that Hyderabad becomes a Union Territory — as opposed to a dedicated capital of the state of Telangana.

“And then, he could make Amit Shah lieutenant governor or even home minister to personally monitor us,” restaurant owner Rashid Janyala said, articulating the distrust among many in the Muslim community for the key Modi aide accused of ordering fake encounters in Gujarat.

The AIMIM’s diktat to Muslims not to vote for the TDP anywhere in Andhra Pradesh could hurt Naidu’s party in key seats where Owaisi has followers.

But the Modi-centric campaign — on both sides of the lake — is also threatening to bring to the surface chilling but usually dormant religious biases in Greater Hyderabad, traditionally a tinderbox.

As Ajay, the Amberpet financial analyst, finished his coffee, he chastised himself.

“They always vote for one candidate but we Hindus vote for multiple candidates, splitting our vote,” Ajay said. “I’m equally responsible — but this time we need to vote as Hindus, and make Modi the PM.”