The BJP and the Congress party headquarters are busy promoting their candidates in what they believe will be a beauty contest for the Prime Minister’s chair. Admittedly the Congress entrant Sonia Gandhi is a bit shy, slightly diffident. She’s reluctant to admit what everybody knows — that Congress will only accept her as Prime Minister. But after two days, driving in the mid-summer heat of Telengana, and it is hot, I wonder whether both parties are wasting their time.
In the state once ruled by the Nizam of Hyderabad, Sonia and Atal Bihari Vajpayee don’t count. Here the Assembly election is dominating the debates. Parliament comes a very poor second and neither national issues nor national leaders seem to matter.
At first sight, the election in Telengana appears to be a contest between Chandrababu Naidu and Another. The Congress has not been able to quell their internecine fighting and name their candidate for chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. Its partner, the Telengana Rashtra Samiti or TRS, does know who its leader is. It has twisted the Congress’ arm mercilessly to force it to surrender almost half the seats in this region but it hasn’t had the gall to suggest that it’s man K. Chandrasekhara Rao could be chief minister.
The Telugu Desam is still hoping for a sympathy vote. Outside the party office in the town of Bhongir, overshadowed by a fort perched on top of an enormous natural rock dome, I saw a bright yellow Telugu Desam vehicle. On the side were enlarged photos of a blood-stained Naidu after his car was blown up by the People’s War Group last year. But inside the office, local workers hoped to win both the parliamentary and the Assembly seats on the strength of their candidates.
“Yes, the chief minister is important,” I was told. “But our MLA has got a good name, he has sympathy.”
Driving a few miles further through the barren countryside, its red rocky soil hostile to anything but scraggy shrubs, I came to one of those Indian villages in the process of turning into a small town. Off the main road, I met a small shopkeeper who did think Naidu was a good leader but he didn’t like the local candidate and that was what counted.
An old lady said: “All I care about is getting something to eat.”
A toddy-tapper with a pot of the foaming liquor at his feet said he didn’t have any problem with the sitting MLA and so would probably support him. Nearer the district headquarters of Warangal, I came across a group of villagers gathered around an itinerant blacksmith. They told me very firmly: “Village people are not concerned with national issues. We have heard of Vajpayee but we think nothing good or bad about him. Here it is just Telugu Desam against TRS.”
“What about Naidu'” I asked.
“Some like him, some don’t.”
“So how will you vote'”
“Some villages like one candidate, some another.”
The blacksmith laughed and said: “That’s why I have to change my party each village I go to.”
The one issue that preoccupied everyone I talked to was water. That should provide a wave in favour of the TRS because one of its main reasons for demanding a separate state is the allegation that all the water of the Godavari and the Krishna rivers is used by coastal Andhra.
Kakatiya University in Warangal is the intellectual powerhouse of the Telengana movement. Dr E. Revathi, associate professor of Economics at that university, did want a special state to give Telengana an independent voice in negotiations over the sharing of river water. Under successive Andhra governments, she complained, not only had Telengana never received any river water, its traditional tanks had also been allowed to silt up, and some had fallen prey to property speculators so could never store water again.
Dr Revathi is backing the TRS in this election but she doesn’t have much time for politicians. “They have hijacked our movement and we have no faith in them, so the movement will have to go on whoever wins the election,” she said.
The TRS hasn’t convinced the intellectuals of its good faith and it doesn’t seem to have convinced the tribals north of Warangal of its cause. In one forest village I was told TRS leader Chandrasekhara Rao only formed his party “because he was concerned about his own problems, because he wasn’t made a minister”.
In the local town of Tadwai near the border with Chhattisgarh, the general opinion was that local issue mattered and Telengana wasn’t one.
So it seems that both the general election and the Assembly election, in Telengana anyhow, are not going to be part of a national beauty contest, nor a battle between Naidu and Another. There is no leader and no issue which can prevent them being just a battle between candidates. That makes for a psephologist’s nightmare and it won’t be too easy either for the two sisters in Tadwai who told me they always voted for the winning candidate.