The Central government’s dramatic announcement, without any broadbased political consultation, that the process of forming a separate Telangana State would be initiated has plunged the Congress party’s southern stronghold into a deep political crisis.
Andhra Pradesh, India’s first linguistic State that was carved out from erstwhile Madras, has been sought to be settled by the Congress leadership through a bolt from the blue — a declaration that it was setting in motion the process of formation of a separate Telangana State. There has been a strong overnight backlash, with a 100 of the 175 MLAs from the two other regions of the State queueing up outside the Legislative Assembly Speaker’s chamber to hand in their resignations and mass protests starting in Rayalaseema. With the resignations involving legislators belonging to all three major parties — the Congress, the Telugu Desam Party, and film star Charanjeevi’s Praja Rajyam — south India’s largest State, which has sent the largest number of Congress MPs to the 15th Lok Sabha, has plunged into a new political crisis.
When he announced the decision close to midnight on Wednesday after a meeting of the Congress party’s core committee, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram overrode, in one swoop, the United Progressive Alliance’s electoral commitment in its common minimum programme in 2004 that Telangana would be created through a process of consultations and consensus. There were no consultations outside the closed doors of the core committee, not to mention any broad-based consensus.
The phraseology of the Home Minister’s terse statement came as a pleasant surprise to the agitating leadership of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) — and as a rude shock to State Congress leaders. Neither expected the Central government to go so far as to declare that the process of breaking up south India’s largest State would be initiated through an appropriate resolution moved in the A.P. Assembly. By all accounts, TRS leaders would have been content with a pledge of friendly and open-ended talks, sweetened by the tabling of a resolution for discussion in the Assembly. This would have been sufficient to persuade a weakening K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who has political ambitions, to call off his 11-day fast. Chief Minister K. Rosaiah himself appeared fazed by the big news from New Delhi, although it could not be confirmed whether he was taken into full confidence before the Centre made the fateful announcement.
As political events unfolded dramatically in Hyderabad, it was clear that finding an amicable resolution to the Telangana issue could not be the preserve of the Congress to the exclusion of other political parties, mass organisations, not to forget the people of Telangana in whose minds the feeling of being left out of opportunities in education and employment has rankled for more than half a century.
The political perception in Hyderabad is that there has been a costly miscalculation in New Delhi arising from a gross underestimation of the political damage the ruling party was guaranteed to suffer in the two other regions that together send the majority of legislators to the State Assembly. En masse resignations overnight by Congress legislators have shown their lack of respect for the high command’s decision — making it clear they feel no obligation to abide by the Congress Legislature Party’s earlier resolution urging AICC president Sonia Gandhi to take an appropriate decision on Telangana to defuse the tensions in region.
In the absence of a democratic consultation process, the Centre’s announcement left an impression that it was a case of loss of nerve in the face of violent protests and the danger of their escalation should Chandrasekhar Rao’s health deteriorate further. Reminiscent of the 1970s, when important decisions concerning States were taken by the Delhi darbar, no attempt was made to study the political implications of separating Telangana from the other two regions — coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. Even Mr. Rosaiah, an uncontroversial veteran with long administrative experience, seemed to receive only grudging support after he took over as Chief Minister; he was obliged to seek the Centre’s advice on all issues, big and small.
Left out of the decision making process and their aspirations ignored, most of the MLAs from coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema seem to nurse a feeling of humiliation, which is likely to intensify under the impact of the mass mood in the two regions. Dispassionate political observers point out that in 1972 coastal Andhra witnessed a violent backlash after Kasu Brahmananda Reddy was replaced as Chief Minister by P.V. Narasimha Rao, who hailed from Telangana, under the impact of a tumultuous and prolonged agitation for a separate Telangana State.
If the Congress case is that its responses have not been knee-jerk, it must at least take the blame for short-sightedly trying to steal the TRS’s thunder, pressured by its 14 MPs from Telangana who feared losing the loyalty of their constituents and threats to their personal safety. Its strategy was to project itself as a party that has ‘given’ (a loose translation of a Telugu word often used) Telangana and derive maximum mileage in the next general election. In this exercise in wishful thinking, a fallout from the game plan would be the marginalisation of the Telugu Desam Party — whose sudden support for separate Statehood has not carried much conviction — in both the Telangana and Andhra regions.
That the road to the formation of a Telangana State — should it eventually happen — will be long and bumpy, and that there are no short cuts for dividing big States, is a salutary lesson to be learnt from the complicated process of forming Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand. The passage of an Assembly resolution proposed by Mr. Chidambaram, which now seems a remote possibility with the Assembly facing the real prospect of an exodus of the majority of its members, is only the first step, though not an essential one since new States can be carved out without going through this process. It needs an amendment to the constitutional provisions (Article 3) dealing with the formation of new States and alteration of areas, boundaries, or names of existing States.
But this does not exhaust the list of hurdles and political problems. In the event of a break-up of Andhra Pradesh, the status of Hyderabad — a bustling and dynamic metropolis, a hub of information technology and the pharmaceutical industry and a microcosm of the diversity of Indian cultures — will need to be settled. A highly contentious and emotive issue, the inclusion of Hyderabad in Telangana, a region comprising 10 out of the State’s 23 districts, will make it extremely difficult for the political system to satisfy the Andhra region’s aspirations for a first-rate capital.
Although the TRS, unlike Marri Channa Reddy’s Telangana Praja Samithi, which asked Andhras to go back in 1969, has said people from other regions who have made considerable investments in Hyderabad were welcome to stay, the recent violence has not done anything to inject a sense of safety among those who have come to be known as ‘Andhra Settlers.’
The people of Telangana deserved a better deal from the Congress leadership, which, despite being at the helm in New Delhi for the greater part of India’s independent career, is accused by Telangana protagonists of allowing the problem to fester. Those standing aloof from the activities of political parties tend to view the issue not merely through the lens of economic development but as an issue relating to redemption of their self-respect, which suffered under feudalism in the past and through a denial of opportunities for employment and education in recent decades. Issues that have caused an erosion of this self-respect require a comprehensive examination, not merely by government-appointed committees but independently by well-meaning sections of the intelligentsia and sustainable solutions worked out.
Past experience suggests that quick-fix solutions like the latest announcement from New Delhi cannot possibly resolve the Telangana issue. Even the six-point formula evolved by Indira Gandhi in the wake of the separate Andhra agitation in 1973 for accelerated development of backward regions and preferential treatment to local candidates in employment failed to redress the grievances of Telangana. A more creative and democratic approach, bringing in all stakeholders and going beyond narrow party considerations, is an absolute imperative if the State is to be rescued from its deep political crisis.