Telangana: Nation, State and the City
The issue of a separate state for Telangana will continue to fester even as the central government led by the Congress continues to procrastinate on a decision on it. The Congress’ electoral calculations, which seem to govern its attitude toward the issue, cannot afford to continually ignore the popular aspirations of the people in the region, as further dithering only complicates the political situation in both Telangana and in coastal Andhra.
The Congress after hastily announcing the initiation of the process of formation of a separate state of Telangana on December 9, 2009, has been procrastinating on the final decision, as only the Congress could do. Part of the reason for this is that Congress continues to look for a win-win strategy in both the regions – Telangana and coastal Andhra, and it could not find one, in all these years. It has now realised that it has reached a “lose-lose” situation, in both the regions of Andhra Pradesh. The single most important reason for Congress for at-least revisiting the issue is the realisation that in spite of holding up the issue of formation of a separate Telangana, it has steadily lost its popular base in the districts of coastal Andhra, which has instead shifted, in a rather dramatic manner to the newly formed YSR-Congress.
As for Telangana, it had already yielded the political space to the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), and now there is the additional predicament with the possibility of the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party, especially after they won in Mahabubnagar district, in the recent by-elections held in March 2012. The Congress was therefore staring at a rather bleak future in both the regions of the state, which had contributed the largest number of MPs, in the previous general elections. The leadership of the Congress now realises that it cannot possibly imagine coming anywhere close to regaining power at the centre, without returning a sizeable number of MPs from Andhra Pradesh. As part of the new calculations for the forthcoming general elections, the party seems to be counting on the decision to grant a separate Telangana, as one of its electoral strategy, alongside implementing popular schemes such as direct cash transfers. This visible pressure on the Congress to take a favourable decision then needs to be attributed as much to the people of the Andhra region, as for the unrelenting struggle of those in the Telangana region.
The realisation that Telangana did not figure so significantly in the calculations of the electorate in the coastal districts, in a sense, will be the game changer. Instead, it is the welfare schemes under the YSR regime, and continuation of those that seem to matter more. However, the extensive welfare schemes imagined and implemented by the former chief minister, Y.S.Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), have come to be seen, more as part of the political repertoire of his projected benevolent personality, rather than any sustained policy direction of the Congress party itself. While, the high command might be ruing this popularity of YSR, and made attempts to even bury that legacy by naming him in the FIR filed in disproportionate assets against his family, including his son Jagan Mohan Reddy, who has been languishing in the jail for close to a year now. Jagan Mohan Reddy, in effect, has been reaping the benefits of the extensive welfare programmes that were almost meticulously implemented by YSR. While, one might have aversion to dynasty politics, it needs to however be understood in the context of the neo-liberal reforms. With neo-liberalism, and the advent of global capital, and global market mechanisms, governments look helpless in controlling price rise, and in disbursing subsidies. There is a sense of facelessness to this process that has also made it difficult distinguishing the policy frame of one political party from the other. In such an eventuality, individual personalities, families become tangible targets on whom onus can be laid. They become symbols, who are either acknowledged or rejected, in the face of the kind of contingency that electorates experience in receiving even minimal benefits, and social security measures reaching them. The shift from party to personality in coastal Andhra got coupled with the shift from party to region, in Telangana. There was, in fact, a suggestion for the formation of a separate political outfit- the Telangana Democratic Front, with all the MPs and MLAs, from all the political parties in the Telangana region, joining together. The new imagination around popular support, right from the beginning of this struggle for a separate Telangana, cut across party affiliations. Between personality-cult and regional aspirations, the Congress had lost much of its political relevance.
Developments in coastal Andhra & Rayalseema
Had the Congress managed to maintain some popular support base in coastal Andhra, it could have been a very different story all together. The Congress did attempt to turn it around in coastal Andhra by launching Chiranjeevi, with the merger of his party Praja Rajyam into the Congress, as its leader. However, he failed to capture the popular imagination and that experiment was a non-starter. The situation gained further clarity with Jagan Mohan Reddy not being allowed to carry out his odarpu yatra in the Telangana region, since he was seen as voice for united Andhra Pradesh. His entourage was attacked by students in Warangal; he had to beat a hasty retreat, and never campaigned in the Telangana region. It was also clear that YSR himself did not enjoy the kind of credibility and mass following in the Telangana region that he had in Seemandhra. Part of the reason for YSR`s unpopularity was the fact that agrarian crisis in the Telangana region became more acute during his time, and he launched new projects such as Polavaram, to procure more water resources to the Andhra region, and kept those under-construction projects in the Telangana region that were supposed procure water for the Telangana region, in abeyance. It is an irony that while the struggle for a separate Telangana began due to the agrarian crisis, it has entered a stalemate around the question of Hyderabad. Akin to the shift of focus from land reforms to land acquisition in the last three decades, the contentious issue in the formation of a separate Telangana was the city of Hyderabad, and urban lands, in which coastal Andhra traders have massive investments. Lagdapati Rajgopal, a Congress MP from coastal Andhra, who has spearheaded the campaign (read lobbying) for a united Andhra Pradesh, himself is alleged to have had huge investments and business interests in keeping the state united. The issue thereby assumed the classical dimension of a contest between accumulation and legitimacy. In fact, the Jai Andhra movement in the coastal districts clearly separated themselves from these neo-rich, and argued that a separate state for Andhra people would create new investment and employment opportunities for the common people. The neo-rich from coastal Andhra made their money initially through investment of the agrarian surplus in the film and hotel industry, and more recently through speculative land dealings, real estate, irrigation and mining contracts.
The nature of the capital, and the speculative deals never created wider economic opportunities for the common people in the coastal Andhra districts. What would make a real difference with the formation of the separate state is a share in the water resources. Telangana, contrary to the popular belief, is one of the most water rich areas in the country, and has been systematically deprived of these resources as a fall-out of conscious state-policy, due to which it suffered from acute agrarian crisis, leading up to a spate of farmer`s suicides. Within this unfolding drama, the third region of Rayalseema has become the theatre of the absurd. While all important leaders in the AP politics today, including Chandrababu Naidu, the chief of the Telugu Desam Party, Jagan Mohan Reddy of YSR-Congress, and the Kiran Kumar Reddy, the current chief minister of AP, belong to the Rayalseema region, it has still remained neglected. Rayalseema being an arid region has remained economically backward, and culturally fraught with factionalism. Thus, while the economic capital belonged to the coastal regions, the political power was handled by those from the Rayalseema; in that sense it did not suffer from deep-rooted feeling of being neglected. People from Telangana region had neither. Added to that was a conscious policy of abject neglect of Telangana, which was treated like a colonial hinterland, and culturally denigrated.
The political developments in the eventuality of the formation of a separate state of Telangana are many. The TRS was all along a party with a single agenda of fighting for separate statehood, beyond which it has no social or political vision. The popularity of the party and its leadership is inextricably tied to the demand itself. It would therefore be not much of a surprise if the TRS decides to merge in Congress, in order to extend its political innings.
In fact, its chief, K.Chandrasekahar Rao (popularly called KCR), has already, for some time now, made an image-makeover from his aggressive posturing in the past to a statesman-like behaviour; though he has announced in the past that the first chief minister of the separate state would be a dalit. As for the TDP, it has already lost many of its top leaders who quit the party to either remain independent, or join the TRS. Whether or not TDP will continue to be a relevant political force in the separate state would depend on whether or not it manages to keep its traditional social base among the OBCs. This question becomes all the more precarious with the rise of the BJP, which has the potential to knock-off this base from them. This also leads us to the question of the Muslims, who constitute 10-14% in most of the 10 districts of the Telangana region. This is also the reason why the BJP visualises Telangana as its second-stop in the south, after Karnataka. As I had pointed elsewhere, the memory of once having belonged to the ruling elite among the Muslims combined with a sizeable population is a potent mix on which BJP can begin its anti-Muslim rhetoric.[i] Some of the events in the recent past, including the riots in Adilabad, and the recent statements and controversy surrounding the Owaisi clan (of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen) are pointers in that direction, apart from the contentious issues of a small-temple like structure that suddenly came up attached to a pillar of the adorable Charminar. These issues would in the coming days provide the required fodder for communal polarisation. It should be mentioned here that there is already, though a silent apprehension, among the caste Hindus in the Telangana region that once Telangana is achieved there would be a possibility of going back to the days of Nizam, ,meaning to the days to “Muslim domination”. As for, the larger fall-out at the national level, there could be more demands for separate state including those in Gorkhaland, and Vidharba. Very much like Telangana, they are born from demands for more economic development, and better living conditions. This necessitates the government in the centre to seriously consider the possibility of constituting 2nd State Reorganisation Commission. Though one needs to keep in mind that more smaller states does not necessarily mean a stronger federal set-up, instead it could also mean a stronger centre.
Finally, though the movement for a separate Telangana has been waged relentlessly, and with unprecedented mobilisation in villages and districts, the national media- in whose self-imagination they are the true torchbearers for the nation- both print and electronic- have unequivocally blocked out any news on this. This is intriguing to say the least. While there are wide speculations in Telangana that the neo-rich from coastal Andhra either have direct investments in the news channels, or have bribed them, it is more likely that an issue that is not run by urban India does not interest the media. It does not make for good TV. It did not have spokespersons, unlike Koodankulam or the campaign lead by Anna Hazare, who spoke the language that the media personnel understood. It did not have urban symbolism but spoke in terms of local folklore and festivals that speak a different idiom, and carry different caste-class equations. It was primarily agrarian and rural, and if anything politicised the city and the metropolitan that were otherwise imagined to be sanitised spaces of urban recreation. Though the movement for a large part was spearheaded by the youth- young India- but unfortunately this was not “the youth” that anchors had in mind, and of course they did not speak chaste-English nor were they amenable to the patronage they wished to extend to the “vernacular”. The national media has singularly played a very regressive role, and the democratic content of their anchor`s worldview stops short of substance. However, Telangana will continue to be an issue and nothing short of separate statehood will be acceptable to the people of this region. The electoral calculations of the Congress too now cannot afford to ignore the popular aspiration.
[i] Refer Ajay Gudavarthy, `Tangles of Telangana` Indian Express, Op-Ed, July 11, 2011. Also refer `The State of Popular Aspiration` Indian Express, Op-Ed, February 5, 2005.
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