To know the story of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) election in a nutshell, travel to Habsiguda ward. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) fielded sitting corporator Bethi Swapna Reddy, wife of Uppal MLA Bethi Subhas Reddy, as its candidate. It was a politically suicidal decision because videos of citizens shouting at Subhas Reddy for not providing help during the Hyderabad floods had gone viral and were fresh in the electorate’s mind. With that kind of seething public anger, it was no surprise that Swapna Reddy bit the dust in the election.
Making big inroads in the state capital, the BJP won 48 seats. The TRS bagged 56 seats, emerging as the single-largest party but fell short of the majority mark. Asaduddin Owaisi’s All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) won 44 seats while the Congress finished a distant fourth with just two seats.
Several wards that had borne the brunt of the flood fury similarly replaced the TRS pink stole with the BJP saffron. The story of the TRS performance is as much about poor ticket distribution as about caring two hoots about public perception. The vote is revenge against the TRS dispensation for not reaching out adequately and with compassion when Hyderabadis were in distress. The vote is to tell the party leadership that fielding candidates like Swapna Reddy was rubbing salt on their wounds. The vote is to caution them against taking the public for granted.
It is obvious the TRS did not see it coming. Every exit poll too had given the party seats above 75, the halfway mark. This is probably why the party started celebrating early at Telangana Bhavan, the TRS headquarters in Hyderabad, feting posters of K Chandrasekhar Rao and KT Rama Rao with milk abhishekam, bursting crackers and dancing.
But as early trends gave way to confirmed results by late evening, it was obvious that it was the Hyderabadi voter who was on song. He had not robbed the TRS of its numero uno position in the Council but left it high and dry. The pink party will now be forced to get into an arrangement with the AIMIM to grab the Mayor and Deputy Mayor posts. Enough for BJP to say “See, we told you so” alluding to the clandestine friendship between KCR and Asaduddin Owaisi.
The BJP has reason to celebrate. The party worked hard during the campaign, deploying every big gun in its arsenal in the battleground. While it polarised the narrative to grab the headlines, it worked on the ground in wards that suffered during the floods. That focused effort paid off.
Another strategy the BJP deployed was to ensure the Telugu Desam vote shifted base. It did this by working hard in the streets of areas like LB Nagar, Kukatpally, Vanasthalipuram on the outskirts of Hyderabad where a large population of people hailing from Andhra Pradesh resides. Similarly, the bulk of the anti-TRS vote that would otherwise go to the Congress in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections moved to the BJP, realising that the party stood a better chance of vanquishing the TRS.
Owaisi was targeted sharply by the BJP that called him the modern-day version of Mohammed Ali Jinnah during the campaign. But the MIM largely managed to hold on to its turf and the number of seats it won in 2016. This means Owaisi will still continue to be relevant in Hyderabad politics.
But there are lessons to learn for the BJP as well. There is a section within the party that believes that the strident posturing of the BJP neither helped it make major inroads into AIMIM bastions in the Old city nor did it aid in gaining support in the new city. The gains instead came in wards where harping on civic issues found resonance. This means that over the next three years, before the 2023 Assembly elections, the BJP would need to focus on offering an alternate development agenda to the people of Telangana.
For those in other parts of India, the GHMC election will seem like just another municipality poll. But Hyderabad is the economic engine of Telangana and 24/119 legislators and 4/17 MPs are elected from Greater Hyderabad. So its political and economic significance cannot be underestimated.
This is why the GHMC verdict, coming exactly two years after the splendid TRS victory in the Telangana Assembly elections, would worry the leadership. This was like a mid-term mini election. And a majority of the voters in Hyderabad have given the TRS a wake-up call.
While the TRS will do well to go back to the drawing board, the BJP will be like a party that has tasted blood. If the Dubbaka bypoll win in November helped energise the cadre for the GHMC election, this performance will encourage it to fight to the finish in the Nagarjunasagar byelection in 2021.
Hyderabad did not give BJP the mandate to change the city’s name. But the manner in which the BJP put up a fight, it has certainly made a name for itself.