Monday, December 21, 2009

On Telengana

With my business connections in Hyderabad, I am increasingly worried about the state of affairs in Andhra Pradesh and the political tension surrounding the formation of the Telengana state. I can see the Congress Party is split in two, with the coastal MPs fasting unto death and agitating with all their life's worth against the decision, and the ones from Northern regions quietly basking in the glory of finally bringing justice to a long forgotten region.

It will take some time for the dust to settle. There are two hugely contentious issues: One is the formation of the new state, and the second is the status of Hyderabad, which falls into Telengana geographically, and is closely linked by history with the region. If Hyderabad is supposed to become part of Telegana, expectedly its capital, it will suddenly change the city and the equations in the state. There are talks of making Hyderabad an Union Territory, which is really about postponing the decision for now, and taking one battle at a time. But, whatever it is, there are some battles at hand which the government at the centre must fight.

It is commendable that the government has taken the decision to form Telengana. This marks the end of a long struggle for devolution in the region, which has claimed many lives and was the springboard of Maoist insurgency in India. It is one of the poorest regions in the country. Separate statehood means that the people of the region will have a greater say on the local resources, and some development money will flow in. It will be easier to focus on the desperate poverty that plagues the region, and there will be more clarity on development targets and achievements unmuddled by the progress of Andhra Pradesh's coastal districts. Its political dividend is huge, particularly in combating the Naxalite extremism which has taken hold in Central India, and proving very difficult to combat.

It is difficult to understand what the fuss is about. Andhra Pradesh is really a modern creation, and this itself was created after a long agitation and struggle for linguistic identity. Yes, we do get used to maps and forget how recent the formations have been, but Telengana was always culturally distinct and historically separate from coastal regions. Except for colonizing intent and emotions, it is hard to understand why so many people are so upset.

Except, if you count vested interests in. The separation of Telengana will suddenly change the political equations, and some of the big landlords are quite uneasy. This is a sort of a fear of democracy, where you suddenly see the poorer people gaining a bit of an upper hand, and start worrying about all the land that you have invested into, legally or illegally. So, these people are up in arms, though they clearly know the inevitability of formation of such a state, because they would want to extract a price for losing Telengana. Of course, these are very few, very privileged people; they are using the rest of population with an imagery of Andhra Pradesh that never was.

One has to say that the central government haven't managed the communication very well. There are no policy direction publicly stated, nor there was any public consultation on how things should move. The entire debate is based on observations and off-the-cuff remarks by certain senior functionaries, including the Home Minister. And, even if some comments were made, they were not substantiated or justified to reflect any amount of serious thinking on part of the government. While there are string reasons behind such a move, and the government has done very well in taking the bull by its horns and in addressing the issue, it is somewhat squandering the political capital it could have gained.

Such clarity needs to be restored immediately. This will help everyone involved in Hyderabad to be able to have a long term view. Besides, one needs to have a clear plan to separate these two states, not just geographically but also administratively, to avoid chaos and implosion of administrative systems, which seems to be happening. The investors need confidence that the ongoing project commitments will be honoured, and an effective transitional arrangement will be made.
However, one thing is abundantly clear. Telengana will happen. And, so will other smaller states in India, like the one on hills in West Bengal, though I am not sure it should be called Gorkhaland. Indian federalism, over the next decade, will have to progress to the next stage - that of power moving closer to the people. The current crisis should not be seen as a crisis of identity or one that will tear India apart. In fact, these are signs of maturity in democracy and of aspiration of people, and the power will continue to devolve, if chaotically, till we have achieved complete accountability of state functionaries.

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