No-win state

Print edition : July 29, 2011

The Centre can take a decision on Telangana only at its own peril and the major parties of Andhra Pradesh are divided on the issue.

in Hyderabad

VEXED. That would best describe the feeling of all political parties in Andhra Pradesh today over the Central government's drift on the long-standing demand for a separate Telangana State. The refrain among leaders from both coastal Andhra and Telangana regions of the State is that the Centre must end the political instability that is paralysing the administration, scaring away prospective investors and stifling development.

But this exhortation is not as simple as it appears. Everyone wants the Centre's verdict to go in his or her group's favour. At least outwardly, though, many leaders pledge that they will fall in line with the verdict, whichever way it goes. The catch lies here. The ruling Congress and the main opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in the State want to fire the Telangana gun off the Centre's shoulders.

In the absence of a consensus within these two parties, the Centre can only take a decision on Telangana at its own peril. Neither party has the capacity to hammer out a consensus. Such is the crisis the leaderships of these two parties are facing. On its part, the Congress high command, by conducting talks exclusively with its party leaders in Andhra Pradesh, gives an impression that its short-term partisan interests must be served.

In the long term, too, the final decision has to yield a rich haul of seats in the next Lok Sabha. Simply put, the Congress would like to rule both parts of the divided State and retain the 33 Lok Sabha seats it won from the State in 2009.

In such a situation, the interests of eight crore people of Andhra Pradesh take a back seat to those of the ruling party. What drives one to this conclusion is the complete absence of a democratic debate about the wider implications of a division of South India's largest State, which can fuel similar demands elsewhere in the country.

Weighty issues

The weighty issues to be considered are whether Telangana and Seemandhra (coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema) as two separate States can progress faster than a unified State as of now and whether Hyderabad will be better off as a Union Territory, as a common capital or as the capital of Telangana alone.

These issues were kept in cold storage as the Congress party's attention was focussed on the elections that were held recently to the Assemblies of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam. The Congress high command apparently counselled its leaders in Telangana not to raise the pitch until the elections were over in mid-May.

Seizing the opportunity, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K. Chandrashekar Rao struck by June end. His timing was right: the Congress in Andhra Pradesh was becoming weaker by the day, people's patience was wearing thin, and Osmania University students, who provided momentum to the struggle for statehood, were back on the campus after the summer vacation.

In a move uncharacteristic of his personality, the TRS supremo drove down to the residence of Minister for Panchayat Raj K. Jana Reddy, a key Congress leader from Telangana. He advised Congress leaders to drop their proposed move to undertake a fast from July 4 as the All India Congress Committee (AICC) would not buckle under it. He advised them instead to resign en masse from their elected posts.

He made an offer that the Congress leaders could not refuse. It was that if they resigned, the TRS would help them in getting re-elected. The TRS would even consider merging itself with the Congress if its high command gave an unwavering commitment on Telangana.

The Congress leaders fell for it. They announced that all its Members of Parliament, the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council (MPs, MLAs and MLCs) would resign their seats. In order to prove that they were no less committed to a separate State, MLAs of the TDP, the TRS, the Communist Party of India and the Bharatiya Janata Party also submitted their resignation letters.

By July 5, as many as 99 of the 119 MLAs from the region (one had resigned earlier), and 14 MPs, including Chandrasekhar Rao and his party's Medak MP Vijayashanthi, had put in their papers in a reflection of the popular support in the region for a separate Telangana.

The majority of the elected representatives in Hyderabad, however, stayed away from the resignation drama. This was again to be seen as an expression of a different sentiment in the State capital.

The resignations created for the AICC a first-rate political crisis. It raised the spectre of President's Rule in a Congress-ruled State and concern about the party's majority in the Lok Sabha. Nine Congress members of the Lok Sabha and 12 State Ministers were among those who submitted their resignations.

Union Finance Minister and the party's veteran trouble-shooter Pranab Mukherjee read the Ministers and MPs the riot act for not taking the Congress high command into confidence before submitting the resignations. The only concession the party offered was to begin a process of consultations, which was a far cry from the expectation of leaders from Telangana for an announcement fixing a deadline to carve out a separate State. Mukherjee also summoned the Congress leaders of Seemandhra, who are opposed to the bifurcation of the State, and asked them to put forth their proposals to end the Telangana tangle.

As life came to a standstill in Telangana with a 48-hour bandh call on July 5 and violence returned to the Osmania University campus, Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram held that there was no breakdown of law and order and made it clear that imposition of President's Rule was not on the Centre's agenda.

It is generally felt that a situation like this could have been avoided had the Centre not frittered away valuable time and convened an all-party meeting, as was promised, to discuss the Justice Srikrishna Committee report on Telangana, which was submitted some six months ago. There were expectations of some movement on the six options suggested in the report submitted to Chidambaram. Of course, the best way forward, it recommended, was to keep the State united with constitutional/statutory measures to address the core socio-economic concerns about the development of Telangana.

Meanwhile, a confidential chapter of the report caused embarrassment to the committee and the government when its content was adversely commented upon by the Andhra Pradesh High Court for overstepping its brief. Apparently, Chapter VIII had in it helpful' suggestions to the government on managing' political parties and the media, besides commenting on how a separate Telangana would become a hotbed of naxalite activity.

TDP's confusion

The TDP is as much a picture of confusion and disarray as the Congress. A shrewd politician, Telugu Desam president N. Chandrababu Naidu seems to be losing his grip over this issue. This was on display when, at an all-party meeting held on December 7, 2009, he backed the proposal for the creation of a separate Telangana State without internal discussion in his party. Ever since, he has rued this rash act which heralded his own troubles.

The TDP is now a house divided between leaders from Telangana and Seemandhra. Naidu can do nothing beyond walking the political tightrope by describing the regions as his two eyes. He believes that the TDP should not lose sweat over a problem which the Centre must untangle, having created it in the first place.

Significantly, this has led to what was unthinkable in the TDP earlier: open rebellion by a few Telangana MLAs led by Nagam Janardhan Reddy, Deputy Leader of the TDP Legislature Party, who accuses Naidu of favouring Seemandhra under the guise of his two-eyes theory.

Thirty years into its existence, the regional party is at a crossroads over the Telangana issue. As Naidu has turned 61, there is a clamour to develop a second line of leadership and infuse new blood into the party. Leaders who were in their late twenties and early thirties when N.T. Rama Rao founded the party are today pushing 60. Naidu's brother-in-law and Rajya Sabha member N. Harikrishna is himself pitching for a place for his 28-year-old actor son, NTR Jr.

Congress' woes

It is the other way round for the Congress. When N. Kiran Kumar Reddy, 51, succeeded 78-year-old K. Rosaiah as Chief Minister, it was expected to provide a whiff of fresh political air. But such hopes vanished soon when Kiran Kumar Reddy faced a revolt from Ministers who were unhappy with their portfolios.

The Council of Ministers is a picture of disunity, with Ministers from the Telangana region publicly criticising their own government and others targeting the Chief Minister for taking key decisions unilaterally. Amid this confusion, the roundhouse punch delivered by former party leader Jaganmohan Reddy in the byelection to the Kadapa Lok Sabha constituency further diminished the authority of the Chief Minister. Jaganmohan, former Chief Minister Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy's son, left the Congress and floated his own party, the YSR Congress, before contesting the election. His rising influence in parts of Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra has been grudgingly accepted by the Congress. He is bound to gain acceptability in Telangana if he announces a stand sympathetic to the movement for a separate State.

Single-point agenda

That leaves Chandrasekhar Rao, who has no qualms about who his political friends are. He sailed with the Congress in 2004, the TDP and the Left parties in 2009, and is now virtually mentoring Congress leaders from Telangana. The TRS has a single-point agenda: a separate State. Riding high after a near-clean sweep of the byelections to a dozen Assembly seats in the region last year, Chandrasekhar Rao's immediate agenda is to finish the TDP in the Telangana region, a prospect the Congress too relishes.

A separate Telangana can become a reality only when the Congress leadership has a convincing strategy that will bring it to power in both the regions. As things stand now, this is a difficult prospect. There is no guarantee that the party can hog the credit for creating Telangana and defeat the TRS or overcome the challenge posed by the YSR Congress and the TDP in Seemandhra. Maintaining the status quo, too, might lead to the ruling party losing in both the regions. In effect, it is a no-win situation for the Congress.

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