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Political mess

Published : Jan 01, 2010 00:00 IST

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AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi and Home Minister P. Chidambaram.-PTI

AICC general secretary Rahul Gandhi and Home Minister P. Chidambaram.-PTI

TRADITONALLY, media briefings at the All India Congress Committee are divided into two segments. The first one is the official part, where the spokespersons or leaders address the media and present the formal statement of the party on any given issue. The second segment, attended by one or a clutch of leaders, is termed debriefing, and it is at this session that the perspectives and reasoning behind any particular position is explained informally. Not all journalists attending the first segment get admission to this session. Select journalists are also provided with hints about special stories highlighting particular issues or activities relating to the Congress or its political adversaries at this session. Obviously, the session has tremendous value and importance in terms of explaining the partys thinking on major issues.

But, according to a number of Congress leaders involved in the exercise, this important organisational task has become more taxing than ever before. The reason is the party leaderships flip-flop on the Telangana issue as reflected in the statement on the night of December 9 by Home Minister P. Chidambaram and the December 11 clarification by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Chidambaram stated on December 9 after a series of consultations with other senior party leaders and with Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister K. Rosaiah that the process of forming the state of Telangana would be initiated and an appropriate resolution moved in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. The adverse responses that the statement evoked on several fronts notably, the en masse resignation of MLAs and MPs belonging to different parties, including the Congress formed the principal reason for the Prime Ministers clarification. He assured a group of MPs from Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra that met him that his government would show no haste in the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh.

Many Congress leaders who hold the debriefing sessions apparently found it less difficult to explain the Prime Ministers calibrated volte-face than the Home Ministers original statement. In fact, a number of these leaders admitted that they were unable to understand the manner in which Chidambarams statement was made, especially its context, tenor and timing. To start with, the Home Minister asserted that the process of forming the state of Telangana would be initiated and an appropriate resolution moved in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly. It was preceded by day-long discussions involving the top leadership of the Congress and the Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, and to top it all, the statement was made late at night outside Parliament although it was in session when the party leadership was holding discussions. In hindsight, many sections of the Congress as well as its allies in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) have interpreted these steps as politically and administratively incorrect and immature.

A senior Congress leader from North India, known for his objective assessment of political situations, said the Home Minister should have explained what he meant by process and should have focussed on the various consultations that would naturally have been initiated with other political groupings in Andhra Pradesh and at the national level. The leader also pointed out that the statement could have waited until Parliament resumed its session in the morning. No clear explanation was given of the intent of the party and its government or sagacity shown to wait until the next morning. Not only that, the close-to-midnight timing of the statement gave the impression that it was indeed a serious and high-priority decision of the party.

In the days following December 9, the Congress leadership, including the Prime Minister and the Home Minister, took great pains to emphasise that the real intent of the statement was to consider the demand for Telangana seriously and not to plunge into a bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh in a hurry. Taking their cue from this line of explanation, many of the debriefing leaders contended that the Home Ministers priority at that instant was to convey to the agitating Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) the governments readiness to address the issue. This was done with the specific intent of protecting the lives and property of the people of Andhra Pradesh, particularly the life of K. Chandrasekhara Rao, the TRS leader who was fasting at that time and was in a critical condition.

However, a large section of the political class in the capital does not view this argument as credible. The sceptics are naturally dominated by parties in the opposition, but even within the Congress there are not many takers for it. According to a number of Congress leaders, including senior Congress MPs from Andhra Pradesh, there were several factors other than protection of property and lives behind the December 9 move.

Some of the issues discussed at the day-long meetings in New Delhi included apprehensions whether Andhra Pradesh leaders opposed to Chief Minister Rosaiah, along with their supporters in the world of business, were using the Telangana trouble to unseat the new captain of the State government. The fact that Rosaiah is perceived widely as a weak Chief Minister added to the apprehension. It is generally accepted that Rosaiah does not have a grip on the State Congress or the administration unlike his predecessor Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy.

The leadership seems to have been worried about the repetition of a crisis similar to the one faced by the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka recently, a senior MP from Andhra Pradesh pointed out. He added that there was also the worry that Maoists would make use of the TRS agitation to launch their own strikes.

Over and above this were the perceived political gains the move could fetch. There was a general consensus on December 9 among Congress leaders at the national level and those from Andhra Pradesh that the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), the principal opposition party in the State, had lost its political credibility in non-Telangana regions on account of its electoral alliance with the TRS and its decision to abandon the opposition to a Telangana state. The BJP was committed to the idea of a separate Telangana.

In this context, it was analysed that it made political sense to make an announcement about initiating the process of forming Telangana because it would strengthen the position of the Congress in that part of Andhra Pradesh. It was also deduced that the TDP would not be able to garner much opposition to the Congress move. In short, the December 9 announcement was an instance of blatant political gamesmanship that failed to address the complexities of the Telangana demand and imagine its ramifications elsewhere in the country.

In fact, the hasty announcement went clearly against the UPAs promise in its 2009 election manifesto on the formation of Telangana through a process of consultations and consensus. The only consultation that preceded the announcement was the one held within the Congress. The first UPA government had toyed with the idea of setting up a second States Reorganisation Commission to look into the demands from different regions for the formation of new states.

Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, on his part, has off and on held discussions on the idea of having smaller states. His focus was particularly on Uttar Pradesh, which has witnessed demands for trifurcation. The principal emphasis of all these formulations was consultations and consensus. But, on December 9, the Congress gave it the go-by, obviously motivated by small political gains.

Interestingly, several Congress leaders as well as opposition party leaders such as Reoti Raman Singh of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) are of the view that the December 9 statement is part of a long-term strategy chalked out by Rahul Gandhi himself. While the Congress leaders are circumspect about Rahul Gandhis role in the pronouncement, Raman Singh has made bold to hold the young leader personally responsible for the current Telangana mess. I have little doubt that Rahul Gandhi is behind this. Such a major move would not have been initiated without his clearance. In my view, this is the precursor of initiating moves to divide Uttar Pradesh, he said.

Many Congress leaders, including supporters of a separate Telangana, agree with this perception although they do not subscribe to Raman Singhs adversarial tone. Rahuljis primary concern is the overall development of the nation and he understands the importance of having smaller political and administrative units for better governance, a Congress MP supportive of statehood for Telangana said. Given the balance of power within the Congress and Rahul Gandhis growing role in decision-making in the party, the attribution of the December 9 announcement to him may not be off the mark. Whatever the details of the moves behind the decision, the fact remains that the Congress leadership has been forced to backtrack on the hasty move, essentially on account of the revolt from within.

According to Union Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, the Congress will come out of the present impasse and take the correct decision and choose the correct time to fulfil the aspirations of all sections of people. There is little doubt now that the current perception within the party favours a return to the process of consultations and consensus to arrive at the correct decision at the correct time. But the big question is how the damage that has already been caused will be repaired.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jan 01, 2010.)

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