Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram’s latest statement on the existential crisis of south India’s largest State is a game attempt to calm the situation by taking the Telangana issue back to where it was before his late-night announcement of December 9. The backtracking and throwing up of the central government’s hands are understandable. They have had the immediate effect of calming a volatile situation in the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions, which together account for 175 of the State’s 294 MLAs. But predictably, the statement has produced the opposite effect in Telangana. While it may be too soon to get the measure of the violence unleashed in this region, the early incidents of bus burning, stone pelting, attacks on shops and government offices, and sporadic targeting of properties belonging to ‘settlers’ from the Andhra region do not augur well for the State. Nor does the fact that more than 60 of the 119 MLAs from the Telangana region have initiated ‘resignation’ moves. (By the time Mr. Chidambaram made his second statement on December 23, 143 of the 175 MLAs from the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions had submitted their ‘resignations’; many of them are now believed to be ready to withdraw them.) There can be little doubt that by announcing — without wider political consultations at the national level and without assessing the public mood across the State — that “the process of forming the State of Telangana will be initiated” and “an appropriate resolution will be moved in the State Assembly,” the central government made a costly blunder. Overnight, a difficult situation created in the State capital by the fast of Telangana Rashtra Samithi leader K. Chandrasekhar Rao was transformed into a first-rate political crisis for the whole State. The legislature has been paralysed and the executive branch reduced to dysfunctionality despite sensible attempts by Chief Minister K. Rosaiah to moderate the situation.
But in terms of what went wrong and what needs to be done, Mr. Chidambaram’s latest statement does the service of restoring the political balance by placing the crisis in perspective. What is now clear is this. Not just the Congress party and the central government but most political parties concerned with the long-festering Telangana issue miscalculated and blundered badly. They must therefore accept special responsibility for correcting the situation through constructive responses rather than by exploiting the political troubles of the ruling party. The minutes of the meeting convened by Chief Minister Rosaiah on December 7 reveal that all parties, with the exception of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and the Lok Satta, supported the move to initiate the process of forming a State of Telangana by tabling a resolution in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. The Telugu Desam Party and the Praja Rajyam Party might have done a total volte face under the pressure of mass constituency revolts but that does not absolve them of a special responsibility to cooperate with the State and central governments in the efforts to resolve the political crisis.
What then is to be done about the future of independent India’s first linguistic State? The first thing the central government needs to do is to firm up its political resolve not to capitulate on a vital issue under the threat of orchestrated militancy and violence. But it also needs to show political imagination and good footwork. Setting up the long-promised Second States Reorganisation Commission will be a good idea. The best way to strengthen Chief Minister Rosaiah’s hand in dealing with the crisis will be a combination of political clear-headedness and practical support in the form of adequate central forces to deal with the public order challenge. Everyone knows that long-festering problems do not allow for easy solutions. The Telangana issue as we know it has been around for half a century, and there is also a pre-history of a revolutionary struggle against landlordism in the region. The Congress party has always had an ambiguous stand on this issue. While recent Congress election manifestoes have bought time by either proposing a Second States Reorganisation Commission (in 2004) or remaining silent (in 2009), it is notable that under the pressure of coalition politics, the National Common Minimum Programme of May 2004 made this promise: “The UPA government will consider the demand for the formation of a Telangana state at an appropriate time after due consultations and consensus.” The party’s strongest and most resourceful State leader of recent times, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, managed to keep the problem under control by first forming a committee under Mr. Rosaiah to study it, and then by trouncing the TRS in its own region in the 2009 Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. But YSR’s death in a helicopter crash changed everything, including the rules of the political game in Telangana. The Maoist presence in the region may be a cause for concern but it should not be allowed to cloud clear thinking. One lesson to be learnt is that on an intractable issue like Telangana, the need to arrive at a national-level political consensus through democratic consultations is inescapable. Recent events have only strengthened the logic of the argument presented in The Hindu’s editorial of December 9, 2009 that while the diagnosis of the backwardness and neglect of the Telangana region is sound and must be empathised with, a just and progressive solution can be found within an undivided Andhra Pradesh on the basis of regional autonomy and big, concentrated development efforts.