The draft Lokpal Bill may have tied up the Congress’ attention at the Centre. But if it does not stir soon, Telangana might become a costly oversight, says SAI MANISH
Brewing trouble Protesters at one of the cook-and-eat sessions in Hyderabad
Photo: Syed Mazher Ali
FOR THE Congress-led UPA, which is racing against time to hammer out a draft Lokpal Bill, another ominous deadline looms on the horizon in the form of Telengana. Come 1 July, and the Congress will find itself staring right down a double-barrelled gun. On one side are its own MPs and MLAs from Telangana all ready with resignation letters, vacillating between hostility and rapprochement with the Congress High Command. On the other is the combined might of the Telangana Joint Action Committee (T-JAC) — a superstructure of pro-Telangana parties and politicians that has called for a ‘Maha Yuddham’ in July to force the Centre to concede its demand for a separate state
Headed by a fire-breathing Osmania University political science professor M Kodandaram, supported by TRS supremo K Chandrashekhara Rao and the BJP, the JAC has already started warming up to a full-blown assault in July by organising cook-and-eat sessions across Hyderabad last week. The warm-up turned out to be a massive success with thousands of families flooding the roads with their pots and pans. But before dealing with other Telangana leaders, the Congress will need to placate its inner demons.
“He just didn’t have the time to listen,” complains Telangana Congress MP K Hanumantha Rao about Union Home Minister P Chidambaram who excused himself to dash off to a core committee meeting on the Lokpal issue. “Some threefour people are trying to mislead the Congress High Command. The real protests are over a separate Telangana and not a unified Andhra as is being told by some Congressmen to the high command. I told Pranab Mukherjee that he has not understood the real issue, which is that we will not be able to face the people if a decision on a separate state is not taken right away.” Rao was part of a delegation that gave another ultimatum to the Central leadership to initiate a resolution in the AP Assembly for the creation of a separate state, failing which they would be forced to resign and take the issue to its “logical conclusion”. The Telangana faction in the Congress has been making animated demands with MPs even falling on Mukherjee’s feet leaving the veteran statesman embarrassed.
The Congress core committee is caught between the melodrama of the Telangana faction and the hardened business interests of the united Andhra faction that is staunchly opposing dividing the state. One of them is Kavuri Samba Siva Rao who heads a construction company with major investments in Hyderabad. “The demand for a separate Telangana is untenable. Although the decision is with the high command, a united Andhra is the only way forward,” he says.
All 60-odd Congress MPs and MLAs from the region seem to be living the adage of damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Legislators are now running out of ideas and unsure of the Central leadership’s mind, not knowing who to trust.
The confusion started after Union Petroleum Minister Jaipal Reddy, whom Telangana legislators classified as “one of their own”, in a foot-in-the-mouth moment asked Osmania University students to be “proponents of nationalism and not regionalism and sub-regionalism”. Distraught Congressmen called for Reddy’s head to roll, forcing him to retract. Political observers though aren’t surprised by the indecisiveness of the high command. “Of all parties, the Congress is probably the best proponent of the ‘one week is an era in politics’ notion. It thinks it can have a wait-and-watch policy on Telangana because it knows previous reorganisation of states have never really hurt the party’s interest,” says political commentator Krishna Ananth. “The Congress government under Morarji Desai ordered firings on pro-Maharashtra protesters killing over 100 people in 1960. Yet he continued to be CM. The Congress relies on this long history and feels it won’t suffer much damage on the Telangana issue, irrespective of the perception that it is dragging its feet.”
SUCH A stand would, however, ignore the changing political landscape of India, especially Andhra Pradesh, where strong regional political forces have emerged over the course of history, each demanding their own share of the power pie. But Congress’ woes are not limited to its own party.
The T-JAC is all set to spike the momentum by July, which will lead to all-too-familiar scenes of mass rioting, violence, student uprisings, administrative revolt and a breakdown of public services.
“We will block roads, dig up railway lines and enforce a partial shutdown in the first week of July,” warns T-JAC convenor M Kodandaram. “The entire state will be brought to a standstill if our demands for a separate state are not met soon. This time the intensity of our agitation will be twice as before.” Kodandaram organised the ‘million march’ in March this year. “Students of Osmania University are all ready to join in as hostels have already started filling up. Farmers and women will flood the streets,” he adds.
While the T-JAC ups the ante, other parties like the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) are positioning themselves to make the most of this opportunity. The TDP, like the Congress, is also brimming with dissenting voices. Says TDP MP from Adilabad Ramesh Rathod: “The onus of creating a separate Telangana lies with the Centre. For long,the Congress has dangled the carrot of Telangana in front of the people’s eyes. Now they must stop fooling around.” Rathod’s stand runs contrary to his party’s, which had already suspended an MLA, Nagam Janardhan Reddy, a month ago for his pro-Telangana comments. “We will convince Chandrababu Naidu about Telangana. That is not a problem. But let the Congress act first,” he adds.
Such remarks have left the Congress even more worried because, unlike the TDP, the high priests of the Congress are inaccessible for those on the ground who want assurances. “In Telangana, government servants, policemen, administration officials have all started boycotting their duties in protest,” says a worried pro-Telangana MP on condition of anonymity. “What will I tell them? They now think the Congress is an impediment to Telangana. All our lives, we have served this region and now because of some outsiders sitting prettily in Delhi conniving with these Andhra MPs, we will lose everything.”
The Justice Srikrishna report on which the Congress was banking for a way out has failed to realign either political support or antipathy to the concept of a new state.
Chidambaram’s efforts to get two opposing members of every party on board to discuss the Srikrishna report came a cropper when his open invitation for fair talks on a separate state was boycotted by the TRS, TDP and BJP. This rigidity, say political observers, is due to a feeling of certainty among all major political players in the state that a bifurcation is just a few months away and all that needs to be done now is to wrangle for the credit.
The JAC and the TRS are already marking their territories in a realigned state. The TDP and Jagan Mohan Reddy are confident of sweeping the Rayalseema-Coastal Andhra region when the time comes for complete domination. In this entire situation, the Congress finds itself dealing with the power tussle as a mediator rather than a player.
While it pores over the draft Lokpal Bill, the indecisiveness over Telangana may cost it dear in a state whose political history has been dominated and shaped by it since 1951, but is now threatened by internal dissent, rising personal aspirations and aggressive sub-regional players.
Sai Manish is a Correspondent with Tehelka.