By Inder Malhotra
Of all the wounds that the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance has inflicted on itself in its second tenure (UPA-II), arguably the worst is the dithering over the burning Telangana issue.
The thundering silence of the top leadership of the government and the Congress amidst tempestuous turmoil on the ground speaks for itself. The duration for which the festering sore has been left unattended is appalling.
To put the UPA-II’s nay the Congress’ acts of omission and commission in perspective, the problem’s history needs to be encapsulated. At the time of Independence, indeed until September 1948, Telugu-speaking Telangana was part of the multi-lingual princely state of Hyderabad, ruled by the Nizam who was hell-bent on making Hyderabad an independent entity, a design in which Pakistan was complicit.
But his people, fed up with his autocratic rule and depredations of the notorious Razakars, would have nothing of this. A sideshow was the Communist Party of India’s revolt against both the Nizam and Independent India. It was also crushed.
Another major strand in the saga is that though the Mahatma had always favoured linguistic states on the ground that administration must be run in people’s mother tongue, the towering leaders of the Union government — Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and Rajendra Prasad, collectively called JVP — decided to put the issue of linguistic states in deep freeze.
But they had reckoned without the reality of escalating sentiment for a separate Andhra state among the Telugu-speaking population in what was in British times Madras Presidency and is now Tamil Nadu.
After an Andhra Gandhian, Potti Sriramulu, fasted until his death, the Central government was forced to form the Telugu-speaking state of Andhra. Telangana, however, continued to be a part of Hyderabad. A rash of linguistic demands erupted across the country.
A States Reorganisation Commission was appointed and, in accordance with its report, the country’s political map was redrawn in 1956, largely but not entirely along linguistic lines. Telangana became part of Andhra and Hyderabad became the capital of the new state.
In subsequent years, Telangana’s grievances against its neglect and lack of development in it were heard from time to time, but it was only in 1969 that a strong movement for a separate state of Telangana erupted. Its leader was a Congressman from the region, Chenna Reddy.
Indira Gandhi had the stature and the skill, both lacking in the present dispensation, to contain the agitation. She virtually bought over Chenna Reddy (who became successively governor of Uttar Pradesh and Andhra’s flamboyant chief minister).
Fast forward: The sentiment for Telangana gained momentum again after the turn of the century. So much so that in its election manifestos in both the 2004 and 2009 elections, the Congress committed itself to forming a separate Telangana state.
Indeed, in 2004, the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) was part of the UPA-1 and its leader, Mr K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), a minister in the Union Cabinet. When the Congress showed no sign of honouring its promise, he resigned.
In the 2009 elections, however, the TRS was routed because the Congress in Andhra won a spectacular victory in the poll for both Parliament and the state Assembly. Unfortunately, the sole architect of this triumph, Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy (YSR), died in a helicopter accident.
The Central Congress leadership failed to cope with his young son, Mr Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy’s demand that he be allowed to claim his “political inheritance”. Consequently, he walked out of the Congress and formed his own party. In recent by-elections he (and his mother) demonstrated the staggering mass support they enjoy.
At the same time the two successive Congress chief ministers have put their utter ineptitude on display. The Andhra Congress that sent the largest contingent to the current Lok Sabha is now in a shambles.
Meanwhile, hatred between the politicians of the two regions — Telangana on one hand and Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra on the other — cutting across party lines has reached a crescendo, making a compromise of any kind extremely difficult.
However, to rewind, in the aftermath of YSR’s death, KCR saw his opportunity and went on a “fast-unto-death” in the winter of 2009. The drama that followed was dismal beyond belief. As his condition deteriorated, the Congress Core Committee panicked. (Were there shades of Potti Sriramulu here?)
Late in the night of December 9, 2009, the Union home minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, conceded the demand for Telangana, adding that the “process” for this would begin “with a resolution in the state Assembly”. When members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra rose in virulent protest, offering their resignations, just as MLAs and Members of Parliament from Telangana are now resigning or threatening to, within a fortnight the UPA government beat a retreat and proclaimed that “wider consultations with all stakeholders” were needed.
To facilitate this it resorted to the old ploy of appointing a commission. Justice Srikrishna headed it. The commission reported in December last year, but the government and the party are still at a loss about what to do. They are, however, drawing some comfort from the fact that with cinestar Chiranjeevi’s party’s merger with the Congress, its bedraggled ministry in Andhra is “safe”.
As it happened, the Srikrishna Commission made no specific recommendation. It outlined six different “options,” even though it seemed biased towards maintaining the unity of the Andhra state, with regional devolution of power. There are two difficulties in this.
First, that the devolution package offered to Telangana years ago has meant nothing. Secondly and sadly, the Srikrishna Commission also submitted a “secret note” — exposed to the light of day by a court — opposing a separate Telangana state and recommending that the Union government should “mobilise” the media towards this end and offer it “inducements”.
In this foul atmosphere how does one do anything about the concern of non-Telangana population of the state about its enormous stakes in Hyderabad while the Telangana people would not settle for anything less than this city becoming Telangana’s exclusive capital.
The problem is indeed complex. But it is time Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh and Congress president, Mrs Sonia Gandhi, bite the bullet. All other options are worse.