At a public meeting in Hyderabad last month, Congress president Rahul Gandhi accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao of having “the same style of not keeping promises.”

During an earlier visit to the state, Gandhi referred to Rao, or KKK as he is popularly addressed, as “Chotta Modi” (smaller Modi).

There are still nine months to go before India’s general election, but the battle lines are already being drawn. For the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, there is the reassurance that a regional party is positioning itself to take on the Indian National Congress, the BJP’s closest rival. If Rao’s Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) returns to power with a decent majority, it may even seek a more formal relationship with BJP.

“Modi says he will put 150,000 rupees in everyone’s bank account. Here the chief minister says he will give double-bedroom houses to everyone. Both make big promises but will not fulfill them,” Gandhi alleged at a press conference.

Congress feeling the heat

Rao hit back on Thursday, saying such claims were “unlimited idiocy.”

“I am going to the people because I am tired of the baseless allegations made by the opposition. Could they prove even a single allegation of corruption against the government? I am sacrificing part of my term. Let the people decide,” he said.

Attacks on Gandhi have been a common theme since the TRS government said it would dissolve the state assembly early so that voting could be held at the same time as the national election due next April.

“He is the biggest buffoon in the country,” Rao said in one outburst on Thursday.

Rao is known for being a belligerent orator, but not everyone was comfortable with his choice of vocabulary, even within the TRS. “Yes, that expression could have been avoided,” admitted party secretary general Kesava Rao, who joined the TRS in 2013 after a long stint with Congress.

This was not an off-the-cuff gibe. Though the TRS has gloated about how it will be a “KCR versus Nobody” contest in Telangana, the attack on Gandhi was ferocious. The term “buffoon” fits with the “pappu” (brainless) narrative that has been built up by a BJP-backed social-media campaign over several years and is now being used by Rao to rubbish the Congress president.

Taking up the same theme, Rao’s son K T Rama Rao, who is also Telangana industries minister, ridiculed Rahul Gandhi last week by repeatedly referring to him during a press conference as “Rafale Gandhi.” This was an attempt to belittle Gandhi’s allegations of corruption over a deal on Rafale combat aircraft and left no one in any doubt about where the TRS’s sympathies lay.

Rao is doing Modi’s bidding

Other members of the Gandhi family are also in Rao’s sights. He attacked India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, for merging Hyderabad state (present-day Telangana) with Andhra state in 1956, despite the misgivings of the Telangana region. And he criticized Indira Gandhi, Rahul’s grandmother, for not granting statehood to Telangana despite a fierce struggle in 1969.

During the Karnataka election campaign this year, Modi positioned himself as a kaamdaar (one who works) as opposed to a naamdaar  (one who is privileged). Rao gave this dialogue a Delhi-versus-Telangana flavor by calling Gandhi the inheritor of the legacy from the Delhi Sultanate.

Significantly, Modi did not figure in this debate. The TRS cannot afford to have a pre-poll alliance with the BJP for fear of losing the Muslim vote in Telangana, but there is speculation that Rao may be willing to bail out Modi should the BJP fall short of numbers after the 2019 Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) elections.

In the last two months, the TRS has helped Modi’s National Democratic Alliance (NDA) out by abstaining during the trust vote and backing its candidate for the post of deputy chairman of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house. Rao has also met with Modi three times, suggesting that the two leaders have warmed to each other.

In addition, Rao is friendly with Asaduddin Owaisi’s Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (MIM) party in Telangana; it has a significant presence in the old city area of Hyderabad. At a public meeting in Hyderabad this week, Owaisi referred to himself as the engine of the TRS car (the party’s election symbol).

The metaphor was Owaisi’s way of reminding Rao of the significance of the minority vote in Telangana. Yet the MIM could be left with egg on its face if Rao decides to look for a ride with other political passengers next year.

It is also notable that despite Modi’s enthusiastic push for the “One Nation, One Poll” idea, the BJP is not critical of Rao for de-linking the assembly elections from the Lok Sabha poll. Telangana would normally have voted for its assembly during the Lok Sabha polls in the summer of 2019.

Rao’s decision to quit earlier forces two separate elections within three of four months of each other in Telangana, an expenditure that could have been avoided.

Since March, when Nara Chandrababu’s Naidu Telugu Desam Party quit the BJP-led NDA, it has been said that south India is being consumed by anti-BJP sentiment. But Rao is treating the BJP with kid gloves, and that is music to the ruling party’s ears.