Byline by M J Akbar: Telengana lava melts Teflon
Teflon may be synthetic but it is not a negative: it is in great demand among both cooking utensils and politicians. It might even be called history’s finest non-violent armour, for it protects your reputation from stain. If everything greasy simply rolls off the skin, leaving neither scar nor wound, then you become impervious to criticism. For politicians it becomes a near-magical coat, since they need a double-defence mechanism: safety not only from the Opposition’s barbs but also from their own mistakes. Even when Teflon cracks it does so without a sound. The world gets to know of the breach long after it has occurred, leaving you time for repair.
Ronald Reagan used to delight in being called the Teflon politician. Even the Iran-contra scandal bypassed him, while frying half the White House that reported to him – or maybe he bypassed the scandal. The net result was the same. He kept on smiling till his last day in office, his only regret being that he could not get a better successor. But then, no American President has been overwhelmed by his Vice President, so that is not valid evidence in the evaluation of George Bush the Elder.
Two members of the present Union government have been blessed with Teflon: Dr Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. Dr Singh was born with it; Chidambaram ordered it at wholesale rates for use in his public persona. As finance minister he concentrated on spreading the good news and left the bad news to lesser mortals like bureaucrats or even a permanent demi-god like Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He made all announcements about recovery and growth. It was brilliant political strategy.
Since the hone minister is the de facto chief policeman of the country, and the police are rarely blessed with good news, Chidambaram refashioned himself as the homeland security minister, raising his challenge to terrorism rather than mere crime. This clearly affected his mindset. He began to see every problem as an existential threat to the nation, treating Naxalites, for instance, as terrorists rather than a violent political movement born out of hunger and the state’s neglect of the poor. Even when he did not express say so, there always seemed to an “or else!” tagged to every statement he made. There was always an undercurrent suggestion in his demeanor that the home minister was not quite at home in his ministry, but Teflon was the great veneer that never let any uncomfortable thought emerge.
Telengana is the first crack in this Teflon, but of course we have not yet heard the sound of any crack since, as noted, the rupture is noiseless. The phrase “flip-flop” has been well imagined. The first flip may be necessary for purposes of either display or convenience, but a second flip is always a flop, leaving you open to ridicule. The home minister was handed his moment when he announced the formation of a separate Telengana state on 9 December. It was the kind of opportunity that Prime Ministers reserve for themselves, for new states are not born each day.
But Dr Manmohan Singh let his junior change the internal map of India. He might have been too busy: after all, he has been rushing from one country to another, with nary a day even for Parliament. Or, more likely, the Prime Minister might have been a better politician than others think he is. Dr Singh can measure the heat of a hot potato from a long distance, and Telengana was the hottest potato in a decade. He left this potato in the mouth of Chidambaram, and its heat melted the Teflon. Close observers of Delhi’s power plays might have noticed a press release that suggested that the statement on the reversal of the Telengana decision would be made jointly by Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Dr Singh. They did not do anything so rash. The hot potato went back to Chidambaram. All he could do, once again, was juggle it on his tongue. Justifications for the second tongue-twister fell flat. Some over-clever types in Delhi tried to make a scapegoat of the new Andhra Chief Minister Rosaiah, even though the latter had warned his high command not to divide the state. All they managed was to weaken yet another branch on which their authority rested.
The union government has sent a message to Andhra Pradesh: pile on the pressure, and Delhi will buckle. Chandrashekhar Rao went on a fast and got his wish in rather quick time; the rest of Andhra picked up the hint and tweaked its own pressure points, inducing a back-breaking somersault. It is Telengana’s turn once again to indulge in rampage-politics.
A question needs to be raised: why is coastal Andhra Pradesh so insistent on keeping a region that is so adamant on divorce? It cannot be a territorial matter since Telengana is not seceding from the Indian union, and there is no law which says that an Andhra businessman cannot own a Telengana company or, for that matter, property in Hyderabad. Language is clearly no longer the most important glue for states, and if people get convinced that there is imbalance in development they will demand a better option – and seek it in their own lifetimes. There is no point offering them gold in 2020 and coal today. It won’t work.
Chandrashekhar Rao surely believes that he is the father of Telengana, but this child would never have been born without the mismanagement of Delhi. This volcano could have smoldered for many more years without exploding, and perhaps this period could have been used to redress the economic imbalance. But Delhi fired the volcano, and it now has lava on its face.