"At 66, Mother India gets ready for the 29th baby" - so ran the headline in a national daily, highlighting the Congress party's decision to carve Telengana out of Andhra Pradesh which will be the 29th state of the Indian Union in the 66th year of Independence. The modalities need to be worked out, which could take about four months, before the new state comes into being, but no difficulty is envisaged as the move has wide support across the political spectrum.
The demand for a separate Telengana state is about half a century old with periodic agitations of varying intensity in its support. And it is more than three years since the government announced in December 2009 its firm resolve to address the issue. The Justice Srikrishna Commission, constituted in its wake, was not categorical with its recommendations but its report viewed bifurcation with disfavour, its preference being greater autonomy and increased resource allocation for the region within the ambit of the existing unified state. However, the government had not acted on the report and continued to dither, bedevilled as it was with multiple corruption scandals, apart from other preoccupations.
With the general elections looming (due in May 2014), and fearing a rapid erosion of its electoral base, the Congress was probably desperate to get a move on and hence the sudden urge to grant statehood to Telengana. The party seems to have struck a deal with TRS (Telengana Rashtra Samithi), the force behind the latest agitation for a separate state. Even if the two parties do not merge immediately, they are sure to fight on a common platform and are expected to sweep the polls, capturing most of the 17 Lok Sabha seats and 119 assembly seats that the region offers. It is a foregone conclusion that there will be a backlash against the party in the rest of the state, comprising coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, which account for no fewer than 25 Lok Sabha seats, besides 175 assembly seats. That the Congress has virtually given up on this larger area, being content with its prospective hold on Telengana, appears to be indicative of the party's low morale rather than any well thought-out strategy.
In such a scenario, the clear winner appears to be Jagan (moniker for Jaganmohan Reddy), chief of the YSR Congress, the party named after his late father and former Andhra Pradesh chief minister Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy. Jagan has the advantge of being consistent in his opposition to the formation of Telengana, unlike the major regional party, TDP (Telugu Desam Party), and the major national party, BJP. Jagan has been embroiled in corruption cases and may not even be able to contest elections as per a recent Supreme Court order, but that is not likely to come in his way. Notwithstanding the grandstanding of duly "hurt" Congress MPs and MLAs from this area, some of whom could in fact be resigning their seats, the Congress will have no alternative but to come to terms with him. He will acquire the kind of clout now enjoyed by Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati by virtue of their outside support to the government. If the Congress had been more accommodative of Jagan in the wake of his father's death and not driven him away from its fold, the party may not have had to concede Telengana, but history is not about counterfactuals.
Arguments like smaller states being more amenable to effective administration are just academic. Issues like division of states will almost invariably be based on political considerations in a democracy. Thus, it is futile to deride the Congress' decision on Telengana as political opportunism. But a major concern here is that the main protagonist, K. Chandrasekhara Rao, chief of TRS, who is sure to wield enormous influence in running the fledgling state, at least in the initial years, is not known for his integrity or administrative experience. And his party seems to have thrived on extortion during the past few years, hence the nuanced agitation, which permitted the Congress to sit on the issue for years.
People from Telengana have often complained about "loss of jobs". It is not that people from the region are at present discriminated against: what they want is a distinct preference for sons of the soil - and this is where the rub lies. A major national party like the Congress owes it to itself to check the parochial tendencies of its ally and ensure peace and harmony.
Considering that Hyderabad, which will serve as a joint capital for the two states for the first 10 years and that the city is not even going to be a union territory in the interim period, people from Andhra could suddenly find themselves reduced to the status of second class citizens in the megalopolis, which has been home to millions of them. Every care should, therefore, be taken to ensure that Andhras do not feel alienated and there is no flight of capital or business from the city.
The first few years are bound to be marked by turmoil, but it is to be hoped that Telengana, which is well-endowed in terms of natural resources, will eventually come to occupy a proud place among states and prove that the sacrifices made by thousands to realize the dream have not been in vain.
(Parthasarathy Chaganty is a Mumbai-based commentator who has worked as a management consultant. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)