In for a penny, in for a pounding

The UPA government’s notion of a ‘Rayala-Telangana’ state could fail before it gets off the ground. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti has called for a bandh to protest the idea. It is a rare case of a newly emerging state saying it does not want additional territory. And of course those for a united Andhra oppose the idea anyway. Although the TRS is the flag-bearer of the Telangana statehood cause — and the major Congress ally in the region — its anger should not come as a surprise. Not to those who read the Congress’s strategy on the issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party too is on the offensive. Those for Telangana will also bitterly resent the ‘joint capital’ status for Hyderabad. But what is really rattling everyone is the plan to include Kurnool and Anantapur districts in the new state, which would then be called Rayala-Telangana.

Political calculations

Three political calculations underpin the Centre’s, or rather the Congress’s, strategy on ‘Rayala-Telangana.’ The first of these: it could effectively divide the anti-bifurcation movement. The people of Rayalaseema were against the division of Andhra Pradesh, and Kurnool and Anantapur districts were home to some of the biggest protests. Yet, this is where the Congress leadership believes the wedge must be driven. What if people in these districts could be convinced that their first preference — United Andhra — is out? Might they then turn their attention to seeking a better deal within the new state? For instance, on water-sharing? They argue that even if people in the region were anti-bifurcation, they were never enamoured of their brethren in coastal Andhra. This exploits a regional divide within a regional divide.

Second: some in the Congress believe this could transform any voting in the Assembly. As of today, 160 MLAs are from Seemandhra regions, and 119 are from Telangana. (Another 15 of the first group stand disqualified). The nays have it. But take away the 28 MLAs of Kurnool and Anantapur from the 160 and pencil them into the Telangana column and the scoreline reads 147-132 for the new state. This of course involves very dicey assumptions. But the Congress believes the MLAs and MPs and, importantly, lower-level leaders from here, will go along. And many indeed might. This could also leave the masses, still opposed to the move, leaderless, and perhaps keep them off the streets.

Third: from the Congress point of view, the carving out of Rayala-Telangana would bring the party two further benefits. It would truncate the base of its major rival and dilute that of its main ally. Rayalaseema is the stronghold of Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress party. Take away two of its four districts and the Congress believes it has him corralled. Kurnool and Anantapur account for 28 Assembly and four Lok Sabha seats. Their joining the new state would also dilute the strength of the TRS, which has no presence in any of those seats. Perhaps this might further pressure the TRS to merge with the Congress. It would also leave the new state and what remains of Andhra with exactly 21 seats each in the Lok Sabha.

Cynical course

All three calculations beg for trouble. The TRS is coming on to the streets with its opposition to the ‘Rayala’ element. The BJP could do the same. And whether you are a supporter of Telangana or a United Andhra, the chances of things going wrong with this cynical course are worrying. The race is on to get the division through before the Model Code of Conduct for next year’s general elections comes into force — which it could by February. This further highlights the Congress’s move as having less to do with genuine statehood aspirations than with poll engineering. So at the same time as it tries to win the game in the Assembly, the party makes it clear that it does not matter if it loses there.

Simply put, the Congress is saying that (if it loses out on a vote), the opinion of a democratically elected State legislature counts for nothing. This could launch an awful trend. Sure, the assent of the State Assembly is not mandatory in a legal-constitutional sense. It has not been the practice, though, in any of the last several State divisions. Whether in the case of Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand or Jharkhand, the opinion of the Assemblies of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar was given importance. Each had six to eight weeks of discussions. In the case of the U.P. Assembly, 10 weeks. Their suggestions were taken on board.

In Andhra Pradesh, the Congress intends to ram it through, the defiance of its own Chief Minister notwithstanding. The State Assembly won’t get anything like the time-frame the others did. About the only safe prediction of what will happen as the Assembly convenes is chaos. Anger and passion will rule. But perhaps that is the idea: that the Centre could disregard the Assembly’s views, indeed its very role in the process. In terms of future fallout, this is scary. Do this once, and it’s hard to say where it will stop.

Yet, even the short-term calculations might explode. In the 21 Lok Sabha seats the truncated A.P. would have, a wipe-out of the Congress seems likely. The last round of by-elections signalled that sharply. What could it pick up in the new state? Bringing Kurnool and Anantapur into it also means making Jagan Reddy’s YSR Congress a force in Rayala-Telangana. It already has a base in districts like Khammam which have a huge “settler” population from Coastal A.P.

The fight in the four Lok Sabha seats in the two ‘new’ districts might well be between the YSRC and the Telugu Desam Party. (The last by-election to the State Assembly held in Anantapur saw the Congress finish third). One Lok Sabha seat in the new State would go to the MIM. A TDP-BJP alliance — now on the cards — could also pick up a few seats. That would leave the Congress sharing 10-12 seats with an increasingly unhappy ally, the TRS. So the whole exercise could give the party half-a-dozen seats there and vanavas in A.P. for the foreseeable future. And how long will the ties with the TRS hold? They have frayed quickly in the past. The willingness to chance all this argues both electoral cynicism and desperation. Remember the Congress won 33 Lok Sabha seats from Andhra Pradesh in 2009 — more than any party did from a single State anywhere in the country. It could lose most of those in 2014. And at the end of it, have resolved none of the major issues driving statehood demands: water-sharing, Hyderabad, and more.

Polarising impact

There is also the polarising impact on the Telugu vote in other States in 2014. There are major Telugu communities in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, for instance. In Maharashtra, those communities could favour Telangana and vote the Congress. In Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Odisha, the impact on the much larger numbers there, could be the opposite. But never mind the polls, the most risky and dangerous part is here and now, in the process itself. Some leaders of the government have declared they will get the Bill on Telangana through Parliament in this winter session. That starts on Thursday and ends within three weeks.

What should normally be the process? The Group of Ministers (GoM) presents its report to the Union Cabinet. The Cabinet studies it and sends it on to the Union Law Ministry which will draft a bill on statehood. The Cabinet finalises the bill and sends it on to the President of India. The President after studying it, refers it to the Andhra Pradesh Assembly for its views. The Assembly debates the bill and returns it with its views to the President. Who then recommends the bill to Parliament. Only then does the latter discuss and vote on the bill.

Normally, each stage of this process would require a minimum of one or two weeks. The stage at the Assembly, as the process in earlier cases shows, needs 6-8 weeks. How will all of that happen by December 20? Key actors, including the President, the Assembly and Parliament will be denied the time to study or debate the bill. None of them will take kindly to that. There has also been talk of extending the session or holding a special one for this bill. All to beat the Model Code of Conduct deadline.

Whether you are for or against the bill, this amputation of the democratic process sets dangerous precedents. Maybe, as the cliché goes, ‘wisdom will prevail’ and the bill won’t be pushed through in the winter session. A couple of Congress leaders have begun to waffle on the matter. If it still does happen, it will be driven by the need to get it done before the Model Code of Conduct comes into force. And for a possible half-a-dozen seats in the next Lok Sabha for the Congress. There is no other explanation for short-circuiting the process to wind it up before February. That too for polls where, compared to 33 seats the last time, the Congress is in for a penny, in for a pounding.


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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 3:12:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pounding/article5422343.ece

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