A few days ago, some friends actively involved in the Telangana agitation visited me to find out my perspective on why the Centre is not yielding on the longstanding demand. Anxiety was writ large on their faces as they seemed worried about the sustainability of the agitation involving all sections of the Telangana populace.
Would the Centre finally yield on the statehood demand? Why is there a delay when hundreds of thousands of people are protesting on the roads? A mix of emotions seemed to be running through them: one of perpetual hope of realizing the statehood demand and fear that it may not be possible to create a similar fervour if concrete results are not achieved this time.
As the present round of people’s indefinite agitation entered its second month, normal life has been thrown out of gear - in the Telangana region in particular, and in the state of Andhra Pradesh in general. The prosperous and peaceful state of Andhra Pradesh today resembles a veritable war zone or a disturbed region like Afghanistan or Kashmir.
There is no sign of an imminent solution in sight. Inept handling by the Manmohan Singh government, its flip flops – the Centre announced formation of a separate state of Telangana on December 9, 2009 and later backtracked following protests from the other regions of the state – have complicated matters.
The demand for a separate state of Telangana is very old and was mainly focused in urban areas. Rural masses were by and large unaffected by it. It was due to this factor that the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), which championed the cause of Telangana statehood demand, depended on election alliances with the Congress in 2004 and the TDP in 2009. With the rout of TRS in 2009 assembly and parliamentary elections, the statehood demand had weakened considerably.
But the sudden announcement by Manmohan Singh government on December 9, 2009 gave a huge fillip to the agitation. Today, tempers are running so high in the region that the MLAs and MPs fear that they will be thrashed if they do not strongly support the demand. Thanks to the fresh impetus to the agitation, the TRS has gained huge public support at the expense of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Congress.
Political Hot potato
With its control of governments both in the state and at the Centre, the Congress party can make Telangana state happen in a jiffy. But it is not conceding the demand as it fears a backlash from Seema-Andhra regions that account for as many as 25 of the state’s 42 parliamentary seats.
Thanks to a spate of scams hitting in quick succession, the Congress party’s political fortunes have nosedived all over the country. It does not want to do anything that causes any serious damage to its electoral prospects in Andhra Pradesh, a state that has given it the largest contingent of MPs both in 2004 and 2009.
The Congress party is finding the statehood issue extremely tricky. If it concedes the statehood demand, it will be damned in the Seema-Andhra regions as they are opposed to division of the state. And, it will be doomed electorally in Telangana if it reneges on its promise to grant statehood to Telangana. It is in a proverbial “between the devil and the deep sea” situation that is responsible for the central government’s dilly dallying over the issue.
The Congress party faces a formidable electoral challenge from Jaganmohan Reddy’s fledgling YSR Congress party in the Seema-Andhra regions of the state. It may not be off the mark to conclude that the sudden announcement of the formation of Telangana in 2009 was a knee-jerk reaction to fob off the Jagan challenge in the aftermath of his father’s accidental death.
But now the Congress party fears that granting statehood to Telangana would cause a backlash in these regions against the Congress and further boost Jagan’s electoral fortunes. Thus in the Telangana statehood demand the Congress sees a political death warrant for its electoral prospects in the other regions.
Telangana protagonists argue that the Congress would be wiped out in the next polls in the region if it failed to fulfill regional aspirations. But that is not how the Congress party sees the issue. The Congress party’s principal political challengers in the state are the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the YSR Congress, and neither of them can exploit the Telangana issue in that region as they both are against the state’s division. In Telangana, the principal political party now is the TRS. The Congress party feels that the TRS is not an adversary and can be co-opted either before or after next elections.
The Congress is also reportedly working on a contingency plan. Under this, it may ask its MLAs and MPs from the region, who are strongly rooting for the agitation fearing a hostile public, to form a break-away party styled “Telangana Congress” to fight the next elections supporting the statehood demand. Post 2014 elections, they may merge the new party into the parent party or support it.
Alternatively, the Congress party may wait until 2014 to re-assess its electoral prospects in Seema-Andhra regions and if it finds the odds are heavily against the party, it may go ahead and concede statehood demand in a bid to sweep the polls in the Telangana region. It has already got the TRS to agree to a merger plan with the Congress in the event Telangana state becomes a reality.
A Telangana state will have to wait until the Congress party has all its political calculations worked out. As the Congress party faces an anti-corruption backlash nationally, it has little time for Telangana. Thus it won’t happen in a hurry.
An early formation of a Telangana state is possible only if the people of all regions agree to an amicable solution of the main contentious issue of the status of Hyderabad. If a proposal to make Hyderabad a union territory is accepted by all - the two demerged states each having a separate state capital – an early resolution of the vexed issue may become feasible. People from all regions have acquired properties and made huge investments in the city of Hyderabad and they also see it as the only city of employment opportunities in the unified state. People from Seema-Andhra regions do not wish to concede the city to Telangana and this is the main hurdle to an amicable solution.
People of all the regions of the state must engage in a dialogue and arrive at a mutually acceptable solution. Else, the Congress party will continue to make disingenuous promises, keep shifting deadlines and evade concrete steps for fear of electoral backlash.
Does the Congress party care at all that the state continues to burn even as it stands by making its cynical political calculations? From all indications, it doesn’t.