The party was slow to act in the face of the challenges it faced in the State. Now, the manner in which it handles the situation could prove crucial.
In a sense, the Kiran Kumar Reddy government in Andhra Pradesh has been reduced to a minority in the State Assembly following the latest round of political instability. A vote of confidence alone can determine the actual position, but the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the main Opposition party, is unwilling to table a no-trust motion since it is also struck by paralysis in the wake of the Andhra-Telangana imbroglio.
The premise of loss of majority is based on the parade of two dozen MLAs and two MPs of the Congress that party rebel Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy organised, rather audaciously, in the backyard of 24 Akbar Road in New Delhi, the headquarters of the All India Congress Committee, on January 11. By displaying his muscle and declaring that the Kiran Kumar Reddy government was surviving at his mercy, he threw down the gauntlet to the AICC, daring it to make its political move.
Involved in an equally grim battle on the Telangana front with its own Members of Parliament and MLAs as it was, the Congress could respond only in a subdued fashion to this, although it did assert that nobody can pull down its government in the State.
Its smugness is justified, for now. Before some of its MLAs gravitated towards Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy's camp, the Congress had 155 MLAs in the 294-member Assembly. This constituted a slender margin of seven above the figure of 148, which is the figure marking simple majority.
It is banking on support from MLAs belonging to actor K. Chiranjeevi's Praja Rajyam Party (PRP), the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) and independents. These add up to 24. The PRP's effective strength is 14 after two MLAs shook hands with Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy, while the loyalty of two others is suspect. The MIM has seven members, while the three independent members are pro-Congress.
The self-confidence may vanish if more Congress MLAs shift to the side of the former MP, who may have a few aces up his sleeve. Even if Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy stands by his promise not to topple the government since he stands to gain little from that, the Congress has to worry about the eroding of its organisational arrangements at the grassroots level because of his aggressive campaigning.
More questions about the Congress' majority status will arise should its MPs and MLAs from the Telangana region succumb to pressure from Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who is planning a repeat performance by quitting his Mahabubnagar Lok Sabha seat and intensifying the agitation when the budget session of Parliament begins. The Congress leaders are on the same page as Mr. Chandrasekhar Rao in the demand for tabling a Bill in Parliament seeking to carve out a new state.
Clearly, the Congress' political and floor management skills will be put to severe test during that session, not merely in countering the Opposition's demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the 2G spectrum scam but also over the Telangana question. The Bharatiya Janata Party will be in the forefront in applying pressure on the United Progressive Alliance government on both these issues.
A mood of drift and diffidence has marked the Congress high command's response to Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy's defiant stand since September 2009 when he got 151 MLAs to sign an affirmation to back his leadership, a day after the death of his father, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.
Observers feel that at some stage the Congress leadership ought to have called his bluff on his real support base. It did not act when his loyalists in the Rosaiah Cabinet openly mocked the Chief Minister for failing to carry forward YSR's legacy. Nor did it rein in partymen inimical to YSR from attacking the late Chief Minister, who was arguably the Congress' poster boy who helped it win 33 Lok Sabha seats and fended off a determined bid by the TDP to wrest power. For an interminable period, it was a free-for-all in the Congress.
One option before the Congress now is to petition the Deputy Speaker (the party has not been able to find a suitable replacement for Mr. Kiran Reddy as Speaker) to disqualify the MLAs who are loyal to Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy. However, unlike the situation in Karnataka recently when there was an apparent basis to seek the disqualification of rebel BJP MLAs, there is nothing on record to justify any such action against Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy's loyalists, beyond their having attended a farmers' rally at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.
If the petition still passes muster, the Congress government will survive. But it will still face the undesirable prospect of having to face byelections and contest against Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy's proposed party. That, however, is a tall order given that YSR's image remains undimmed among the poor: every other family had received one dole or another from his government.
The Congress may have to pay a heavy price in any attempt to settle scores with Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy at this juncture. The PRP and the MIM, which have declared their intent to prop up the Congress government in the event of its losing majority, may extract their pound of flesh. This will be not merely in terms of power-sharing. Both favour a united Andhra Pradesh, a stand that will be opposed by the pro-Telangana lobby in the Congress.
This will leave the Congress with the only option of making amends with Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy. It has never tried, at least not publicly, to do this. He is aggrieved over the brusque refusal of Congress president Sonia Gandhi when he sought permission to undertake ‘Odarpu Yatra' during a meeting with her on June 3, 2010. A patch-up is unlikely at this stage as both sides have burnt the bridges through mutual recrimination.
The Congress needs to think out of the box to face the pincer-style attacks from Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy and the Telangana protagonists. It must conclude the war in one theatre and focus its energies on the other. Forging a consensus over the Justice Srikrishna Committee in spite of the sharply polarised views on it may not be an impossible task.
As was the case while dealing with Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy, the Congress seems to lack purpose and direction, leave alone fleet-footedness, in seeking to turn the rapidly-changing political equations to its advantage. At every stage, beginning with its generous offer to an Opposition party to carve out a new state, the Congress allowed the TRS to gain the upper hand.
The TRS called all the shots and Congress MPs and MLAs fell in line, never mind that the two parties had bitterly fought each other in the May 2009 elections. If the Congress high command does not act against Mr. Jaganmohan Reddy's MLAs, the Congress will be left with no moral ground to rein in the rebels in Telangana.
Its only cogent and sensible response so far has been to constitute the Srikrishna Committee, with the motive of defusing tensions and evolving the basis for a solution acceptable to people of all the regions of the State. The Congress must atone for its past mistakes, especially the blatant violation of its promises to address the Telangana people's concerns, reassure people that the safeguards it promises now would stand the test of time, and address issues of overall deprivation and backwardness in the spheres of education and health.
The UPA government will be doing an injustice to itself and the country if its decisions are influenced by considerations that are vastly divergent from the Committee's report, allowing though for flaws in data-gathering and interpretation with respect to some key parameters. It will be called upon to set benchmarks to resolve demands for smaller States and meet the well-founded aspirations of their people. A challenge is emerging in Darjeeling where the Gorkha Janamukti Morcha (GJM) has just enforced a four-day bandh demanding the carving out of a Gorkhaland state out of West Bengal.
Andhra Pradesh is heading towards a situation where the imposition of President's Rule may become inevitable to bring about a semblance of order. Hard options need to be exercised, never mind if they hurt partisan interests, including those of the Congress. The State needs to be pulled back from the brink.