Will Telangana move benefit Congress in 2014 polls?

The countdown for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections has begun and the timing of Congress party`s big announcement on Telangana seems absolutely perfect. After delaying a decision on the creation of Telangana as a separate state for nearly three and half years, Congress Working Group`s decision to bifurcate the state of Andhra Pradesh is indeed a masterstroke aimed at reviving its political fortunes.

Though Congress leaders vehemently deny any `political motive` behind the Telangana move, it appears to be based on the party`s assessment that dragging its feet on the issue or delaying a decision will badly hurt its electoral prospects.

Also, the Congress hopes that the Telangana move may help neutralize the growing influence of Jagan Reddy (YSR Congress) and ever wily Chandrababu Naidu in the battle for the top spot in 2014.

Of the two, the Congress rightly fears YSR`s son Jagan Mohan Reddy more as despite being in the jail he has managed to increase his support base considerably.

The treatment given by the CBI to Jagan Reddy has made his party, the YSR Congress, a major force that can foment trouble for the Congress in Rayalaseema and coastal regions of Andhra, where the ruling party has steadily lost ground.

The Congress, though fully aware that conceding the demand for a separate state of Telangana will make the party highly unpopular in Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra, it hopes that the goodwill generated in Telangana would make up for the loss elsewhere.

The Congress hopes to capitalise on this by getting the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS), the main driving force behind the demand for a separate statehood, to merge with it ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

Andhra Pradesh has been crucial for the Congress. In 2004, and in 2009 General Elections, the party won 33 out of the total 42 Lok Sabha seats. Post Telangana announcement, Congress would want to win at least half of its 2009 score.

An above-average performance of the Congress candidates in the first two phases of the panchayat elections held recently in the state has emboldened the party`s expectation that it could still win a large number of seats if elections are held in the near future.

After YSR`s tragic death in a helicopter crash, the political landscape of the state changed dramatically due to a bitter war between Congress and Jagan Reddy, the son of the late chief minister - supporters consider him as the heir to his father`s political legacy.

Despite months of infighting and series of high-level negotiations for power, the Congress leadership refused to budge before a less experienced Jagan Reddy and asked him to wait for appropriate time to become the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh.

As a result, Jagan Mohan Reddy parted ways with his father`s party and floated the YSR Congress to take on his rivals. During one year of his arrest by the CBI in disproportionate assets case, which many believe, is Congress` revenge on him, the popularity of YSR Congress has moved beyond Rayalaseema and pockets of coastal Andhra.

And if a recent survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) is to be believed, then the Jagan factor would loom large when Andhra Pradesh goes to polls in 2014.

The survey predicted that the voting behaviour in Telangana would be largely shaped by the Centre`s final position on the contentious statehood issue.

Another factor that might have compelled the Congress to clear its position on Telangana is the complete failure of megastar Chiranjeevi to improve the party`s stock in Rayalaseema following its highly-publicised merger with the actor`s Praja Rajyam Party.

The repeated statements from BJP president Rajnath Singh that the NDA will form Telangana if it comes to power setting the stage for Narendra Modi`s visit to Andhra Pradesh next month could also have compelled the Congress to take a definitive decision.

The Congress was aware how the residents in Rayalseema region, where a majority prefer united Andhra Pradesh, will react to its Telangana move, but it took the risk. While the decision has been greatly hailed in the Telangana region, it has whipped up an anti-Congress sentiment in Rayalseema and Coastal Andhra Pradesh and triggered demand for creation of smaller states from across the country.

Since Jagan Reddy and his late father strongly opposed the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh, the anti-Congress sentiment due to Telangana will work in favour of his party YSR Congress. Also, the demography of the new state could increase the possibility of polarisation, making BJP a key player in Telangana.

With many of its MLAs and MPs from the Seemandhra region resigning to protest the Telangana decision, it would be interesting to watch how Congress gets them to toe the party line in the coming days.

Whatever may be the outcome of the move, the Congress appears confident, at the moment, that its masterstroke on Telangana has struck the emotional chord with the people at the right time. Only time will tell whether it`s well calibrated Telangana move will pay rich dividends and revive its fortunes in Andhra Pradesh.

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