Telengana: Playing with Fire
Prabir Purkayastha, Newclick, December 16,2009
It is a tragedy for the country that a decision for statehood for Telengana was taken without any application of mind. The highest level in the Congress,which took the decision, perhaps consisting of only Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi, have shown how little they understand the country by giving in to Chandrasekhar Rao's hunger strike.
We are told that this decision was taken by an undefined entity called the “core” committee. Not the Cabinet, not the UPA but a few “core leaders” sitting together and deciding on a course which has literally set the country on fire.
It is also ironic that the movement for linguistic organisation of states started from Andhra --the Vishalandhra movement -- and the unravelling of the linguistic states should start also from Andhra. The division of Punjab and Haryana which took place much later, was the unfinished business of the linguistic re-organisation of the states. The only area, which did not form states on linguistic lines and retained the old colonial boundaries were UP, MP and Bihar. Here, the politics of Hindi and marginalising of the earlier linguistic identities of Bhojpuri, Maithili, Avadhi and other older languages played a role in these states remaining outside the linguistic re-organisation. The division of these states – Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, were formed on a different basis than the earlier linguistic re-organisation.
Why Telangana stands out is that it is a clear break from recognising major language groups as the basis of the states and forming states on that basis. Even then, there were voices arguing that breaking up India in linguistic states would lead to a possible break-up of India and a better course would be to break Indian into much smaller administrative units. The basis of these units would be convenience of governance and not any linguistic or ethnic identity. This was quite different from the concept of a multi-national state in which “nations” merge together to form the larger Indian state. The clash of these two ideas in post colonial India was finally resolved when Nehru finally accepted linguistic re-organisation. It was the Left, particularly the Communist Party, which had spearheaded this struggle in Andhra and was also a very important component of the struggle in Maharashtra. The ideological underpinning of the linguistic basis of states came from Left's understanding of how nations emerge and the importance of language in emergence of such identities. The opposing view of convenient administrative units called states lacked any such underpinning. A state based on convenience of governance does not provide any identity – it could be any combination of districts without regard to any internal identity as the basis of the state. The only basis of such a break-up would be to start from the then existing colonial provinces and then break them up arbitrarily. There was no other criterion that could provide the boundary of such entities. The reason that a set of people found this to be attractive is that it would lead to the centre becoming much stronger than the states. It was the vision of a unitary state, broken up only for convenience into smaller entities but with no identity of their own to challenge the vision of the centre, this was what lay behind the attempt to deny the linguistic basis of the states. That is why the two parties who are strongly in favour of a unitary, centralised state – the Congress and the BJP-- are also in favour of smaller states. Even today, they are uncomfortable with the rise of regional parties and the demand for a larger role for the federal structure. A federal polity is not what these parties would like.
The problem of a Telengana or a Vidharba is that while we can sympathise with their economic demands for a more equitable regional development, carrying it to statehood means that any group of people who feel discriminated, can now demand a state. And if hunger strike is the way to bend a Government, then the peoples' will or views do not matter. What matters is the threat to make a state ungovernable and the Indian state will buckle under this pressure.
This brings us to the second unfortunate issue in deciding statehood for Telengana. It is possible to even agree that may be the way the Telengana region was being left out of development, there was no other alternative but statehood. But the way the statehood decision was taken opens out the Indian state to now blackmail. Here is a leader whose party did not win significantly from Telengana. To most analysts, Chandrasekhar Rao was a spent force and trying to revive his sagging political fortunes with a hunger strike. By all accounts, he did not believe that he would get his way through this strike and was looking for some concession by which he could re-emerge on the political scene. Why then this complete capitulation by the Congress?
This is what is so difficult to fathom. Is it that a Congress, already jittery over Jagan's looming threat in Andhra Congress, did not have the internal cohesion or the gumption to stand up to this crisis? Or is it that the Congress believes that breaking up the linguistic states is in line with its long-term agenda found in Telengana a convenient starting point? Or is it a set of leaders, with no understanding of the dynamics of the country, completely misunderstood the dimension of the crisis that they would bring about with this decision?
It is difficult to read peoples minds, so the basis of the “core” committee's decision will remain opaque to us. All we know is that the country has been plunged into long term instability. A hundred fires have been lit, with Andhra being only the most visible one. Make no mistake. This decision, taken in a hurry, by a mysterious core, with no political consultations, will consume the next 10 years of this country. It will leave a weaker Government and will sap the cohesion of the states. Andhra may be the visible face of this problem today. Others will not be far behind.