Sunday, September 25, 2011

Telengana – Hyderabad holds the key..….

The Telengana movement has disrupted life in AP repeatedly – especially in the last 5-6 years. From a distance, it appears that the time for creating a new state of Telengana has come. And yet, politicians of all hues have failed to make the state a reality. In 1990, the BJP had promised to create Telangana if it came to power, and yet it did nothing when it ruled at the center. The Congress promised to create the new state in 2004 – when it got into an alliance with the TRS – and it too did nothing. As recently as in December 2009, the UPA government went as far ahead as to agree to start the process for creation of Telengana – but since that announcement, it has developed cold feet. Why is it proving so difficult to allow the birth of Telengana, if all major political parties seem aligned on the issue? The reason of course is plain old politics!

First the historical perspective. Telengana was always a region that wanted to stay away from the other regions of Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. As far back as in 1953 – when the States Reorganization Commission was set up – the need to create a separate state of Telengana was felt. In fact, the SRC had at that time said that Telengana should not be merged with Andhra State (the predecessor of the current Andhra Pradesh) even though the language spoken in the two regions was the same: Telugu. However, going against the recommendations of the SRC, Telengana was merged with Andhra – perhaps because the mood those days was to make states only on linguistic basis. As a means of giving the Telengana people some degree of comfort, a “gentlemen’s agreement” was reached between the Andhraites and Telenganaites… part of which specific promises were given to Telengana with respect to reservations in government jobs, educational institutions, investments and the like. These assurances were required given the poor development status of Telengana – it was the most backward of all Telugu regions. As a result of this agreement, the state of Andhra was formed in Nov 1956.

But in spite of all assurances given, the region of Telengana continues to remain backward. Nine out of the thirteen backward districts of AP are from Telengana. Except for the city of Hyderabad (a part of Telengana), there is relatively much lesser development in Telengana. The story of Telengana is not uncommon in India. It has a lot of natural resources – 20% of India’s coal; 45% of Andhra’s forests – and yet, the development has been mostly in the other two regions of AP. It’s much the same story as the one that led to the formation of Jharkhand. So if we are now ready to make states on the basis of “better governance” rather than merely languages, why not give Telengana a chance? After all – debatable though it is – the state of Jharkhand has performed better as an independent state rather than when it was a part of Bihar.

I am told the issue is not really Telengana. Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema would be happy to allow Telengana to form if only if wasn’t for Hyderabad. India’s sixth largest city is one of the fastest growing cities of the last 15 years or so – since the IT revolution started in India – at one time even challenging the status of Bangalore as India’s IT capital. However – Hyderabad is today in a state of stagnation and disrepair – thanks to the politics of Telengana. Repeated strikes have paralyzed industrial and IT activity in the city. Whatever happens, we have to find a solution to the Telengana issue quickly. The status quo simply cannot continue.

The reason Hyderabad is so important is that thousands of crores of investments have been poured into the city by people from Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema. Andhraites fear that if Hyderabad goes to Telengana, their investments will be threatened. This is a strange fear – after all, it’s not as if a new country is proposed to be formed. It’s not like the creation of Pakistan at the time of independence – when people migrating from Pakistan to India had to leave behind all their wealth in that country. Even if Hyderabad goes to Telengana – surely the investments of Andhrities can be protected? Surely, a new capital for Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema can be made in the next two decades. Surely, the Andhra investments can slowly shift back into the non-Telengana AP?

Different political parties are sensing different types of opportunties in Telengana. For the BJP – which has failed to make any impact in unified AP – any intitative that helps in the creation of Telengana will be a good political strategy. Beyond that, the BJP has very little at stake. In supporting Telengana, the BJP has to go against its one time alliance partner, Chandrababu Naidu of the TDP - who is dead against the formation of Telengana. Of course today, TDP is not a partner of the BJP. For the BJP thus – its political opportunism. For the Congress – its plain indecisiveness and internal politics that is at play. Since YSR’s departure, the party has been submerged by internal fissures. What else can be the reason then for the state not to be formed after Chidambaram had announced in Dec 2009 that the Congress had agreed to the proposal? By being indecisive, the Congress is losing on any political capital it could have acquired in the new state. The TDP is opposed to Telengana perhaps because Chandrababu Naidu fears his investments (he runs one of South India’s largest dairy businesses headquartered in Hyderabad) would be in serious jeopardy if Hyderabad were to go to Telengana.

The key to the Telengana problem then lies in the resolution of the Hyderabad question. Unfortunately, Hyderabad is ensconced deeply within the region of Telengana – and making the city a common capital of Telengana and the AP like Chandigarh is is simply not possible. In my mind – the Center has to reassure the people of Andhra that their investments in Hyderabad are safe and secure. Maybe while conceding Hyderabad to Telengana – the center may want to make it a “shared city” for 20 years – after which it could move into Telengana. Or maybe, Hyderabad can be made a Union Territory. But that won’t be acceptable to the Telengana people. The solution to the Telengana problem lies in the solution for Hyderabad. But that’s easier said than done……

There is one other consideration that needs to be kept in mind while deciding on the fate of Telengana. If the demand for Telengana is conceded, what about all the demands for the other states, that are in the waiting? Well… needs to put some filters in place for such decisions to be made. What goes in Telengana’s favor is the fact that the movement has stood the test of time (it has been going on since independence); it seems to have wide political agreement (Congress, BJP, most Telugu parties); it is a development driven reasoning (Telengana is the most backward region of AP) and finally, the population of Telengana is 42% of the population of unified AP (you cannot ignore the demands of such a huge number of people). If other regions in the country can meet such criteria – then maybe it’s a good idea to make smaller states. The experience of both Jharkhand (average growth rate 12.5% in last 5 years) and Chhatisgarh (16% growth) suggest that smaller states are better to run.

The real truth is that the Telengana problem is – like everything else – a political problem. There is an economic logic that demands that a new state be formed. And then there is a political reason which makes the BJP support (yet again) the need for Telengana, while giving the Congress sleepless nights. The key to the solution is the status of Hyderabad. Rather than debating whether Telengana should be formed or not (it should be), we should debate on what should happen to Hyderabad…..

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