Bird in hand, now two in the bush

Every time the late Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy came calling on Manmohan Singh, the Prime Minister had a standard welcome line for the visiting Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. “Welcome Dr. Reddy,” he would say with a warm smile, “We are here because you are there!”

The Prime Minister’s reference was to the fact that the Congress was able to return to power in New Delhi in 2004 because of Reddy’s sweeping victory in Andhra Pradesh. Enthusing his party cadre with a padayatra across the State, YSR, as he is popularly referred to, mobilised peasant anger against the Telugu Desam Party and took the Congress’s tally in the Lok Sabha up from a mere five in 1999 to 29 in 2004. In 2009, he helped the Congress return to power in Hyderabad and Delhi, improving the tally of MPs from his State to 33.

The question today, it seems, is if the next Prime Minister would feel so obliged to the victors of the forthcoming polls in the Telangana, Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions of the State. The historic decision on the dissolution of India’s first linguistic State, it appears, has been taken with that question in mind.

The party’s calculations

The Congress party’s managers have convinced themselves that they have a win-win formula. In the Telangana region, not only would the Congress win enough seats on its own but it imagines the Telangana Rashtra Samiti would lend its weight to a Congress Prime Minster in Delhi. In the Seemandhra region, the party hopes that Jaganmohan Reddy, the prodigal son of its former leader, will in the end support Rahul Gandhi. There is, no doubt, longstanding support and sympathy for the Congress in Telangana has been refurbished with this decision. But would the region’s voters trust it any more than the TRS or other parties that have been more consistent in their support for a separate Telangana?

Will the State’s voters reward or punish the Congress for the games its national leadership has played with the Telugu people over the past decade? Behind the façade of unity and party loyalty in Delhi, most MPs from the State are either nervous or frustrated. Some are seething with impotent rage over the way in which they have been taken for granted and their people let down. They deserve no public sympathy as long as they stick to the loaves of office and their Lutyen’s bungalows, threatening to resign but never doing so.

The manner in which the Congress and the Central government virtually subverted the Justice Srikrishna Committee report, the duplicitous stand of so many Delhi leaders on the division of Andhra Pradesh, including of many members of the recently constituted Group of Ministers (GoM) on Telangana, the inability of members of the Union Council of Ministers from the State to stand up and be heard either in their own constituencies or in Delhi, and the flip-flops of the Union Home Ministry, have all served to undermine the trust that the Telugus had reposed in two successive elections in the Congress.

This GoM on Telangana ought to have been constituted long ago to examine the recommendations of the Srikrishna Committee and, on that basis, map out a planned way ahead for the State. The Srikrishna Committee report was fair and objective and competently written, barring the silly secret chapter that served to subvert the report’s legitimacy. The Central government ought to have started a public debate based on that report and arrived at a consensual map for the road ahead that would have reassured all sections of society — the State’s aspiring middle classes, students looking for local educational opportunities, government servants worried about their relocation, farmers anxious about water supply, and investors with high stakes in the future of the emerging metropolis of Hyderabad-Secunderabad-Cyberabad.

This is no ordinary State with acres of wasteland to be divided and distributed. Andhra Pradesh was one of India’s rising States of the last three decades. The GoM would then have re-assured all sections that none of their long-term interests would be harmed. An all-party group on the Srikrishna report would have smoothened the transition.

The Congress’s attempt to gain political mileage from such a historic decision lies at the root of the public anger sweeping parts of Andhra Pradesh. It is not clear if the affection of the people of Telangana will be won even as the disaffection of the people of Seemandhra has been earned. Heavens would not have fallen if the Congress had first articulated its own vision for Telangana, for Seemaandhra and for Hyderabad and then re-assured all that the interests of those resident in Hyderabad and those aspiring to be so resident would not be harmed by whatever administrative solution was going to be offered.

Even the Partition of India was planned with greater care by a colonial government than this haphazard and utterly insensitive handling of the division of a premier State of the Union.

The GoM, constituted in the wake of widespread anger against the central Congress leadership’s lackadaisical approach to the State’s future, will find it difficult to earn the trust of the Telugu people — of Telangana and Seemandhra. A government that has been in power, as Dr. Singh would put it to YSR, because of the affection of the Telugus across two elections, today stands accused of taking a historic decision to suit its electoral calculations rather than the best interests of the Telugu people as a whole.

I was a critic of the separatist agitation, having participated in it as a student in the early 1970s, not because I did not empathise with the agitation’s demands and the agitators’ grievances — in fact I share them both — but because I believed statehood would not help a future political leadership in the Telangana region address the genuine grievances and needs of the region’s deprived people. Much water has flowed down the Godavari and the Krishna.

Cost-benefit analysis

The deed is done and I respect the popular sentiment in Telangana. Historians and political analysts will, however, debate for decades the costs and benefits of not just the decision, for the Telugu people and for the Indian Union, but of the manner in which it has been arrived at. Politicians will know sooner who would benefit from the decision.

More than a hundred years ago, towards the end of the 19th Century, the greatest Telugu playwright Guruzada Apparao, a master of wit, wisdom and satire and a social reformer to boot, wrote a the famous play, Kanyasulkam, in which Madhuravani, the young concubine, accuses her lover, Ramapanthulu, the village karanam, of “fraud” when he says he can fix a person’s horoscope to ensure a matrimonial alliance. In Velcheru Narayan Rao’s English translation, Ramapanthulu replies, “Call it politics.”

“What’s the difference?” asks Madhuravani.

“If a person trusts you and you deceive him, it is fraud. If a person doesn’t trust you, it’s politics.”

“Why don’t you just say,” says Madhuravani, “it’s fraud if someone else does it and politics if you do it? It’s all lies anyway.” Ramapanthulu, dismissive of her moralising, tells her she is ignorant of the “subtleties of dharma.”

What subtleties of dharma explain the short-termism that has come to define a historic decision related to the future of a State?

In Guruzada’s play, the tale ends in an unexpected way with Girisam, the novel’s playboy and conman, exclaiming, “Damn it, the story has taken a wrong turn!”

Will those be the Congress leadership’s famous last words?

(The writer is Director for Geo-economics and Strategy, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Hon. Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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Printable version | Oct 27, 2020 4:28:15 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/bird-in-hand-now-two-in-the-bush/article5237773.ece

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