Sunday, December 13, 2009

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box

Andhra split opens up a Pandora's box
By M J Akbar

The public school of politics has only one subject in its tutorials: Events. The big boys of Delhi have been playing truant, lulled by an imposter's mantra. Two victories in five years convinced them that delay is a solution.

Do not underestimate the siren call of procrastination. Fudge always remains an option when you have to straddle irreconcilables like partition and unity demands. There could still be an effort to delay the process necessary for the creation of Telangana through simulated disputes, like over the status of Hyderabad, which, geographically and historically is the natural capital of Telangana.

If Delhi had been as worried over the climate change in Hyderabad as it was over climate change in Copenhagen, it would have foreseen the tsunami. But Union Home Minister P Chidambaram did not whisper the word 'Telangana' until he was compelled to talk of nothing else. The speed with which the government slipped from stonewall to capitulation was bound to trigger anger in those who felt they had lost out. The government had five years to manage reconciliation; it did nothing. The Congress made a deal with K Chandrashekhar Rao in 2004 in order to defeat Chandrababu Naidu, and forgot the boatman once it had crossed the river. Complacency is a criminal offence in public life. The verdict may be delayed, but will not be denied.

In 2009, two constituencies tipped Congress into the comfort zone where it was seemingly safe from the threat of foes and nagging of friends - Andhra Pradesh and the Muslim vote. Within six months both have sent a powerful message: Deliver or face the consequences.

Drift has boxed the government into a lose-lose situation. If Congress had accepted Telangana a day before Rao began his fast, Rao would have been history, rather than an historic figure. Delhi has also sent a dangerous signal to half a dozen disparate stakeholders in a new map of India: Mere crying won't help; in order to get milk you need to pick up the kitchen knife and threaten murder or suicide. As also, that milk comes in cartons rather than by the glass. The hills of Darjeeling have ears, as do the sugarcane stalks of western Uttar Pradesh.

Behind all the sound, fury, mistakes and exultation, the promise of Telangana marks a significant but largely unnoticed shift in the dynamics of federalism. Language was the basis on which the States Reorganization Commission, consisting of Sayyid Fazl Ali, H N Kunzru and K M Pannikar re-fashioned India's internal geography. The untidy parts were sorted out under public pressure - Maharashtra in 1960, Punjab in 1966 - but once again on the basis of language. Only hill regions and the North East were offered criteria that were at a slight variance.

The shift came, logically enough, when the nation's priorities changed. Once it was evident that no regional language, or culture, was under threat from unitary pressures, language melted as a focal point of identity. The new federal politics is determined by economics. Telangana and the rest of Andhra speak the same language, but have diametrically conflicting economic interests. Telangana, in fact, accuses coastal Andhra of exploiting its resources. This fundamental change was evident in 2000, when Uttaranchal, Jharkhand and Chattisgarh were created. Parent and newborn shared the same language. Indeed, the absence of fuss nine years ago is a template in consensus building, in the difference between negotiation and appeasement. Wounds were treated before gangrene could set in.

The seed of every demand lies in the perception of economic neglect, in the belief of a people that they have been left out of the story of rising India. Small then becomes sensible because big has proved to be bogus.

The ferment in the second decisive Congress constituency, Muslims, also has everything to do with economics. The dialectic is faith-based because Muslims have a nationwide presence rather than any specific space. Dr Manmohan Singh has sought to pre-empt a crisis by promising to table the Ranganath Mishra Commission report before the end of the current session of Parliament, but that will be only the beginning of his problems. The Commission has recommended 15% reservation in all government jobs, educational seats and resources for minorities, 10% of which is to be allotted for Muslims. Muslims will treat this as a benchmark and demand to know what action has been taken. None so far; since any action might fuel an equal and opposite reaction. Inaction has served Congress well, for Muslims did not raise the matter in the last elections since they understood the political fallout. But that alibi has been used and cannot be recycled.

The Congress dilemma is familiar to those who win elections: A promise that restores you, can always return to haunt you.

Appeared in Times of India - December 13, 2009