Not even Telangana can save Congress
Saturday, 03 August 2013
The creation of new States is scarcely akin to threatening the integrity of the Republic of India. But the manner in which the UPA has gone ahead with Telangana makes one wonder about the real reason for gerrymandering
Shut up in a lonely mansion, with police night and day/
Patrolling the gardens to keep assassins away/
He got down to work, to the task of settling the fate/
Of millions/ The maps at his disposal were out of date
—WH Auden on
Sir Cyril Radcliffe
Just short of 70 years ago, Sir Cyril Radcliffe arrived in New Delhi in the middle of a north Indian summer, was given a few maps and four assistants and told to divide the Indian subcontinent into two successor states. The tragedy that followed — the bloodbath of Partition — is well known but is not the issue here. What is truly astonishing, especially from the rear-view mirror of history, is the absolute arrogance with which a small ruling elite gave itself powers of cartography and map-making without any care for local cultures, popular aspirations and historical conditions.
It happened elsewhere as well. In 1916, two diplomats — Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Francois Georges-Picot of France — signed what came to be called the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into French and Arab zones of influence and essentially drew lines in the sand. In the years to come, these lines became international boundaries and created new nations. Arabs and Kurds were clubbed together and told they were "Iraq", rather than given separate territories. Kuwait was cut away from southern Iraq for no logical reason other than imperial politics. The First Gulf War of 1990-1991 was as much a reflection of Saddam Hussein's belligerence as of the still-contested nature of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
India is a composite nation, a work in progress perhaps, but a nation nevertheless. Redrawing internal boundaries and creating new States is scarcely akin to threatening the integrity of the Republic of India. Indeed a case can be made for smaller States on administrative, economic and sociological grounds.
Nevertheless, the manner in which the UPA Government and sections of the Congress sought to negotiate and hammer out a solution to the Telangana problem over the past few days did have at least this writer harking back to Auden and Radcliffe, to Sykes and Picot. Was it emotionalism or even objective conditions on the ground that motivated this map-making exercise — or was an attempt at gerrymandering the principal idea? As the proposal for a clumsy Rayala Telangana — an entity and a State nobody had demanded — began to come from the Congress, it was worth asking if the Cabinet in New Delhi was acting any differently from Radcliffe or Sykes and Picot.
In 1956, disparate regions, with different recent histories and socio-economic experiences, were lumped together to form Andhra Pradesh. There was Telangana, which comprised Telugu-speaking areas of the Nizam of Hyderabad's empire, the Marathi and Kannada-speaking areas having gone to other States. There was Rayalaseema, essentially the areas ceded by the Nizam to the British Raj. Finally, there was Coastal Andhra, made up of the Telugu-speaking areas of the old Madras State. The northern part of Coastal Andhra was a sub-region within a sub-region, incorporating former Rajput kingdoms such as Vizianagram.
What did these societies share? The Telugu language. In the 1950s, the logic of linguistic States was accepted as valid. As such, Andhra Pradesh was born. Later, the former kingdoms of Kathiawar were united with Gujarati-speaking areas of Bombay State, Haryana was cut out of Punjab and so on.
The argument made by proponents of Telangana is that language is not enough of an adhesive. They say Telangana, an arid, land-locked region, has suffered economic deprivation of a different order and needs to be liberated from the rest of Andhra Pradesh. Advocates of a united Andhra State argue the case for Telangana is outdated. Whatever may have been the situation and the degree of oppression or otherwise in the time of the Nizam, modern, competitive politics has acted as an equaliser. They suggest Telangana has not been neglected by the rest of Andhra Pradesh but has benefited from investments by farming and business elite from Rayalaseema and Coastal Andhra.
To be fair, the debate is an old one. It acquired particular ferocity in the winter of 2009, when K Chandrashekar Rao, leader of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, went on a fast and demanded the creation of a new State. Just a few months earlier the TRS had been routed in Assembly and Lok Sabha elections and it seemed the Telangana cause had been nullified for the foreseeable future. Then, suddenly, YS Rajasekhara Reddy, the electoral victor and strongman Congress Chief Minister, died in an air accident.
Mr Rao exploited the political vacuum, the Congress' internal confusion and the absence of an authoritative successor to Reddy to revive his politics. He was helped by a panicky Union Government, which dramatically conceded the Telangana demand only to get Mr Rao to end his fast and the unrest in Hyderabad to stop. Over the next four years, the Congress has been trying to backtrack from, divert attention from, tweak or otherwise mitigate that surrender of 2009.
In the past fortnight, that process reached a new milestone when the Congress proposed the creation of Rayala Telangana, by lopping off Anantpur and Kurnool districts from the traditional Rayalaseema area and merging them with Telangana to create a new State. This flummoxed everybody because Telangana partisans have never claimed Anantpur and Kurnool. The reasoning offered was this would amount to a neat bifurcation and give Telangana and rump Andhra Pradesh 21 Lok Sabha seats each. Otherwise Telangana would end up with only 17 of the mother State's 42 seats.
Other arguments, including the stake that certain powerful Congress politicians from the two Rayalaseema districts have in the property market in Hyderabad (the heart of Telangana) were also cited. It was felt the Congress would be electorally more powerful if the Reddy bastions of Kurnool and Anantpur were added to Telangana and would be better able to bargain with potential allies in the new State.
Quite apart from the rejection or absence of any objective criterion, including economic viability, for State formation — subjects that must be entrusted to a new States Organisation Commission, which is now a national necessity — what does the Congress' Telangana experiment tell us?
The party won 33 of Andhra Pradesh's 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2009. In the normal course, it is facing a heavy defeat in 2014. Does it believe it can force the TRS to merge with it, claim credit for fulfilling Telangana aspiration, sweep a potential Rayala Telangana's 21 seats and cut its losses even if it is wiped out in the rest of the old Andhra Pradesh? This is not politics. It is delusion.