Divide and rule

Print edition : August 23, 2013

Telangana Rashtra Samithi president K. Chandrasekhar Rao garlanding a bust of Prof. K. Jayashankar, the ideologue of the Telangana movement, in Hyderabad on July 30. Photo: Mohammed Yousuf

N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister (right), and Digvijay Singh, Congress general secretary and incharge of Andhra Pradesh affairs, coming out of the UPA meeting on Telangana, in New Delhi on July 30. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

A protest against the Centre's decision to form Telangana State, in front of the statue of Potti Sriramulu in Ongole on July 31. Sriramulu undertook a hunger strike for the formation of a separate State for the Telugu-speaking people of Madras Presidency and lost his life. Photo: Kommuri Srinivas

Telangana stands on the threshold of achieving its 60-year-old dream of statehood. But the outpouring of rage among people in the other regions of Andhra Pradesh and the revival of the demand for new States across the country tie the ruling Congress in knots.

A SERIES of political manoeuvres with a speed uncharacteristic of India’s grand old party has ensured that Telangana will become the 29th State in the Indian Republic in the coming months. Vacillation and dilatory tactics, the hallmark of the Congress’ handling of the Telangana issue, gave way to swift and decisive action on July 30.

Back-to-back meetings of the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) coordination committee and the Congress Working Committee (CWC) gave their stamp of approval unanimously to partitioning Andhra Pradesh, India’s fifth largest State both in area and population. History now beckons Telangana as it stands on the threshold of achieving its 60-year-old dream.

It took just two meetings for Congress president Sonia Gandhi to convince the party’s core group that the time had come for the Congress to redeem the pledge to the people of Telangana. Those like Finance Minister P. Chidambaram would have been only too quick to endorse the proposal in order to erase from public memory the negative image created by the midnight proclamation on December 9, 2009, that the process of creating Telangana had begun and the subsequent act of reneging on the promise on December 23. All that is well chronicled.

The breathtaking speed at which the decision was taken and the inevitability of bifurcation left the leaders of Seemandhra (Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra) seething with anger and those from Telangana bewildered. As events unfolded, it was clear that the Congress did not want further procrastination when the Lok Sabha elections were round the corner. In typical Congress fashion, the high command had weaned away Seemandhra leaders such as Kavuri Sambasiva Rao, now a Central Minister, from the frontline of the agitation by pandering to their ambitions and business interests. It simultaneously held back-room deals with Kalvakuntla Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) for merging his Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) with the Congress.

Before the day ended on July 30, Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh’s declaration that the party was willing to discuss the TRS’ merger was grabbed with both hands by KCR, though with the caveat that the Congress must first ensure passage of the Telangana Bill in Parliament. He had promised from several public fora that he would do anything, including the TRS’ merger with the Congress, if Telangana was granted statehood.

Congress leaders had also done their homework about the geographical contours of the two States and about the sops to be given to Seemandhra. They even put into place a plan to deal with a recalcitrant Chief Minister, N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, and made it clear, when he offered to resign, that he would have to oversee the liquidation of a united Andhra Pradesh or face the risk of political oblivion. If winning votes was indeed the name of the game, the Congress should face the electorate on the plank of his government’s performance, given the fact that the party’s base, estimated at 30 per cent, was intact. Kiran Kumar Reddy was returning to Hyderabad when Congress leaders announced that the State would be partitioned.

As the Congress was already rolling out its electoral agenda with big ticket sops such as the Food Security Bill to provide subsidised grain to 75 per cent of the population, Telangana could brook no delay. Digvijay Singh’s labours to dispel the perception that the Congress had fast-tracked Telangana out of political compulsions cut no ice with anyone. As the recently held CNN-IBN/ The Hindu Election Tracker survey showed, the party would receive a sound thrashing in Telangana from the TRS and the YSR Congress (a regional political party led by Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy) in Rayalaseema. Surveys only confirmed what Congress leaders already knew— their party’s ratings were plummeting.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) factor also loomed large over the Congress’ calculations. If it did not create Telangana, a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government would, in line with the BJP’s unambiguous policy favouring smaller States, and run away with the votes. Andhra Pradesh sent 33 members of the Congress to the Lok Sabha in 2009, a factor responsible for the UPA returning to power. The party had to replicate this performance in 2014 and make Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi Prime Minister. Some political analysts question the wisdom of this formulation.

Will all the Lok Sabha seats in Telangana fall into the Congress’ lap with the creation of Telangana? Not fully. People would see the creation of Telangana as a fruition of their own struggle and the sacrifices made by scores of students who committed suicide. Having said that, many would be guided by their political preferences, including the Modi factor in urban areas, and not be wholly guided by the Telangana sentiment. Out of the 17 seats here, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) is bound to retain the Hyderabad Lok Sabha seat, the BJP would wrest a seat or two, leaving the Congress with just about the same number of 12 seats it won in 2009.

In Seemandhra, the Congress will find it an uphill task to win any Lok Sabha seat, given the spontaneous outpouring of rage among the people who feel the party has betrayed them by giving away Hyderabad to Telangana. As much as the people of Telangana yearned for a State of their own, people in Seemandhra aspired to secure a job and build a house in Hyderabad.

After all, their capital city had been changed from Madras (till 1953), Kurnool (1953-56) and Hyderabad (1956 until the “rump” Andhra Pradesh builds its own capital in 10 years). They were now being called upon to build a new capital after investors from coastal Andhra had pumped thousands of crores of rupees into Hyderabad. This contention is, however, disputed by Telangana protagonists who dub them as Andhra capitalists out to exploit the resources and manpower of Telangana.

Challenge for the Congress

The Congress has only to blame itself for not encouraging a credible leadership that could face the challenge from the YSR Congress and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Seemandhra. Except in some reserved constituencies, its choice of Lok Sabha candidate was largely guided by the nominee’s wealth. Not surprisingly, many of them are contractors, builders and realtors with little stake in the common good or sympathy for the people’s cause.

The Congress policy of appeasement of its local leaders and of divide and rule manifested itself in the form of leaders from Telangana and coastal Andhra hopping from one ministerial bungalow to another in Lutyens’ Delhi. Ministers flew business class and stayed in luxury hotels, at the cost of the State exchequer, to be at the beck and call of the Delhi durbar. The late N.T. Rama Rao came to power in 1983 on the plank that Congress leaders were mortgaging Telugu pride on the streets of Delhi. He could not have been more prophetic.

Was all this farce necessary? Why did it take the Congress 60 years to understand and fulfil the aspirations of the people of Telangana? Was it not Jawaharlal Nehru who said on November 1, 1956, when Andhra Pradesh State was formed, with the merger of Hyderabad State with Andhra, “this marriage, as I call it—has many features, good and bad, which often accompany marriages…. There should be a very great degree of capacity to adjust oneself, capacity to appreciate other viewpoints… and not impose oneself on other.” Present-day Congress leaders, in Delhi or in Hyderabad, chose to ignore his advice or follow in the footsteps of Indira Gandhi who firmly put down the Telangana agitation in 1969 and the “Jai Andhra” stir in 1972.

The CWC’s formula to declare Hyderabad, lying in the Telangana heartland, as the common capital for 10 years is reminiscent of the arrangement proposed for Chandigarh. (Chandigarh was to serve as the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana and it was agreed under the Rajiv-Longowal Accord of 1985 that it would be handed over to Punjab. The promise still remains undelivered.) The Centre will assist in building a new capital for the “residuary State”, which will continue to be called Andhra Pradesh, and declare the Polavaram irrigation project a national project.

People’s reaction

It took just 24 hours for these ad hoc solutions to precipitate crises on the political and law and order fronts. Violence broke out in Seemandhra, with students blockading traffic on national highways, burning vehicles and vandalising municipal property. While large contingents of the police have been stationed to prevent violence from spiralling out of control, what should make Congress leaders sit up and take note of is the destruction of statues of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in dozens of places. It is a pointer of the public mood towards the Congress in Seemandhra, when general elections to the Assembly and the Lok Sabha are barely 10 months away.

Ministers, MPs and MLAs, smug in their belief that the Centre would not bifurcate Andhra Pradesh and hence were a disunited lot, were shocked at the ferocity of the public reaction. After initially reconciling themselves to the fait accompli of Andhra Pradesh’s division, 19 out of 20 Seemandhra Ministers announced their decision to resign, while 45 MLAs, cutting across party lines, put in their papers. TDP president N. Chandrababu Naidu, who had held Seemandhra leaders on a tight leash, faced a revolt in his own backyard with over a dozen MLAs joining the dissenters’ ranks.

In the run-up to the Telangana announcement, the Congress had floated some trial balloons. One of them was the idea of a Rayala-Telangana State comprising 10 districts of Telangana and Kurnool and Anantapur in Rayalaseema (total four districts). Its primary aim was to diminish the base of the TDP and the YSR Congress by confining them to coastal Andhra and the remaining two Rayalaseema districts and to partly appease its ally, the MIM, which was for Rayala-Telangana as the second best option.

The revolt in Seemandhra is a small part of the narrative. The bigger one is how the CWC has ignited dormant demands for the creation of new States in West Bengal, Maharashtra, Assam, Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. The UPA government will be known as wise and sagacious if it comes up with a far-sighted approach to people’s aspirations, instead of allowing political expediency to drive its decision-making process.