Although the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) won the Munugode by-election after a bitter head-to-head battle with the BJP, the real story of the by-election was that of Congress.
In a state that was once a major source of its voter strength, fueling its two consecutive terms in mid-2004 and 2009, the election result shows the party’s downward spiral.
Although former Congress Chair Sonia Gandhi is often credited with founding Telangana – even by TRS leader and Prime Minister KCR – Congress failed to draw any political gains from it in 2014 after Telangana was carved out of Andhra Pradesh.
The fury of the split and the loss of Hyderabad ensured that Congress was wiped out in Andhra Pradesh as well.
In the 2018 Telangana election, the party won 19 out of 117 parliamentary seats. Uttam Kumar Reddy became MP and resigned as MLA in 2019. That same year, 12 MLAs swung to the ruling TRS, which already had an overwhelming majority, and left Congress with just six seats.
The rebels split the legislature, escaping penalties under the anti-defect law. Congress stood humiliated at losing its status as an opposition party in the assembly.
In this environment, Munugode began to emerge as a test case for the national party to prove it was still in the bill in the state.
Munugode was a Congressional stronghold, won by Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy in 2018. Mr Reddy left the party and jumped to the BJP in August this year.
The Congress chose Palvai Sravanthi, whose father had long served the area. They also hoped the 1.2 lakh female voters would support them at a time when the TRS and BJP were heavily betting on alcohol.
But unlike the TRS and BJP, Congress had no money to spend. Their leadership’s attention was divided between the Bypoll and Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, who was touring the state a week before the elections.
Although Rahul Gandhi was in the state, he stayed away from the Munugode campaign. Senior leaders dismissed it as “just a side poll” – a sharp contrast to the TRS, which fought as if its government’s survival depended on it.
Even pointing out that a side poll cannot be considered a trendsetter for a general election, and that Congress in Munugode is a distant third place, it seems the party is losing the narrative at all in the race to form a government in 2023 be.
Political analysts say what worked for the TRS was working with the Communist Party of India (CPI) in an assembly where the Left Party has considerable influence.
Anger at former MLA Komatireddy Rajagopal for switching sides also helped the TRS as they won the votes of those who wanted to see him defeated.
Locals say the votes Mr Rajagopal received were not due to the BJP but to his own profile and the goodwill he had earned by handing out money lavishly.
Many say that if Mr. Rajagopal had run again as a congressional candidate or as an independent, the TRS could not have won.
It’s a double win for the TRS. They managed to keep the BJP in check. Komatireddy Rajagopal Reddy, who was a major influence in Nalgonda along with his brother Komatireddy Venkat Reddy, has been trimmed and Congress is also likely to take tough action, perhaps even expelling the rebel’s siblings, a senior leader and MP.
The BJP shouldn’t be too unhappy either, even if they only lost after a good fight. They managed to get second place even without a significant cadre or leader in Munugode simply by betting on a leader who could influence voters alone.
That would help them build the narrative and perception that they are in the running to challenge the TRS in the 2023 election, having trailed Congress by a long way.
However, a win could have given the BJP a major boost and given the party momentum to attract and introduce new talent from other parties, making up for their lack of cadres and leadership in the districts.