Congress calculus

Print edition : August 23, 2013

The Congress Working Committee meeting on Telangana in progress on July 30. Photo: Manvender Vashist/PTI

Legislators from the Rayalaseema region meeting in Hyderabad on August 1. They asked the CWC to reconsider its decision and decided to resign in protest. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

It is a desperate decision the Congress took to cut its perceived losses in the coming Lok Sabha elections in view of its waning influence in Andhra Pradesh.

“Caution was a word that Madam repeated several times on that day. She emphasised the need for caution to both the so-called gainers in the formation of the Telangana State and to those who opposed it. To the Telangana supporters, the message was to desist from over-the-top celebrations and provocative statements. And to the so-called aggrieved, too, she counselled caution, stating that the party’s move was in the larger interests of the nation. Of course, there was an element of tightrope walking here, but it also displayed a classic example of political diplomacy.” This was how a senior Congress leader privy to the developments described Congress president and United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s handling of the situation that emerged on July 30 after the Congress Working Committee (CWC) formally announced its decision to go ahead with the formation of the new State of Telangana.

According to the senior leader, the party president was indeed aware that this was an epoch-making day and her message to the leaders from Andhra Pradesh was that the gravity of the moment should not be lost in the din created by the articulation of the immediate and narrow political concerns of some groups or individuals.

Sonia Gandhi’s advice would be perceived with merit in a larger, historical sense but there is little doubt even within the echelons of the Congress that the trigger for the formal announcement of Telangana was immediate political considerations. In fact, for over a month leading up to the July 30 announcement, several leaders and specially formulated groups within the party were engaged in hectic consultations at various levels of the party and between the party and the government. Central to these consultations was the idea of cutting the political losses at least in the Telangana region. This consideration was all the more important given the growing realisation in the Congress leadership that it was steadily losing ground in different parts of the country.

Andhra Pradesh made a crucial contribution to the national tally of the Congress and the UPA in the 2004 and 2009 general elections. Of the 42 seats in the State, the Congress on its own won 29 and 33 seats respectively in 2004 and 2009. The writing is on the wall this time—in the perception of the Congress leadership and independent observers, the ruling party at the Centre and in the State will reach nowhere near these figures in the next general election.

An informal assessment doing the rounds in the Congress for the past two months is that the party will get fewer than five of the 42 seats. This is apparently what made the party go ahead with Telangana and stop a further erosion of its prospects in the electorally important region. The Telangana region has 17 Lok Sabha seats and the Congress won 12 of them in 2009. With the announcement of the new State, the party leadership hopes to repeat this performance even if it draws a blank in the rest of Andhra Pradesh. Assembly elections are also due in Andhra Pradesh in April-May 2014 when Telangana will also have its first elections to the State Assembly. A number of senior Congress leaders believe that with the announcement of Telangana the party has clipped the number of anti-Congress seats in the next Lok Sabha. “This, in turn, has lessened the chances of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance coming to power,” said a senior leader from south India. The leader also added that the prospect of the BJP going all out in favour of Telangana in the 2014 election campaign was another factor that led the Congress leadership to make the announcement at this juncture. “The Telugu Desam Party (TDP) would also have played its own kind of identity politics using Telangana and the rest of Andhra Pradesh. The Congress has been able to put an end to all these games now. In the process, the party will gain a majority in Telangana and can hope to win a few seats in Andhra, which is better than the rout we would have faced otherwise,” said the leader.

As for the BJP, indications are that it is revising its strategy for Andhra Pradesh. Soon after the CWC announcement, the party categorised the Congress move as opportunistic, but the feedback was that this line of argument would not deliver political gains.

At the level of realpolitik the Congress’ calculation is that it will grow steadily in the new Telangana whether the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which spearheaded the agitation for the State, merges with it or not. “The recent history of formation of States underscores this assessment,” said the senior Congress leader.

The formation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh was preceded by militant agitations by regional outfits such as the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) and the Chhattisgarh Rajya Sangarsh Morcha (CRSM). The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) and the Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP) also campaigned for Chhattisgarh.

When the States were formed during the NDA rule, these parties were expected to wield the most influence in their respective regions. But in reality these parties ended up on the sidelines, particularly in Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh. The JMM still sustains some influence in Jharkhand, though not at the expected level. In Uttarakhand, the UKD is a marginal player and in Chhattisgarh the CRSM, led by the then breakaway Congress leader V.C. Shukla, is a non-entity. The CMM and the GGP, too, are only fringe players. The big parties seem to have greater manoeuvrability than the smaller parties in smaller States too on account of a variety of factors, main among them being the access to resources. The Congress leader believes that Telangana will present a similar picture in relation to the TRS.

However, the leader admitted that the Telangana game plan had its flip side, too, essentially on two counts: the rise and spread of other aggressive statehood demands and the threat of Maoists making inroads into the new State. In his view, statehood demands could be particularly trying in relation to the militant movements for Gorkhaland and Bodoland. “Other statehood demands do not have the same emotional dimensions, but these two could be a handful politically and, more importantly, in terms of law and order.

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