Monday, August 5, 2013

We can do with structured new States, but not ad-hoc partitions of India

The usual doublespeak accompanied the Congress Party's green signal to Telangana. The party's entire rank and file in Andhra was "solidly behind the decision", they said. The decision was not politically motivated, they said. The truth is exactly the opposite. The state's Congress Chief Minister and five Telugu ministers in the Union Cabinet were solidly against the party's decision and several MLAs have resigned. And the party was motivated entirely by political considerations.

First, with Jaganmohan Reddy's YSR Congress capturing hearts and minds in the Rayalaseema and coastal areas, the Congress was left with the choice of either gambling for Telangana or losing the whole state. Secondly, the BJP was committed to Telangana and if it were to come anywhere near power after the next election, they would announce Telangana state anyway. Again, the only option for the Congress was to deny the BJP any chance of claiming credit. Telangana has 17 parliamentary seats (out of Andhra's total of 42) and 119 Assembly seats in a house of 294. With the Congress suddenly becoming the darling of Telangana, this is no small catch.

History provides an ironic background to the Congress' opportunistic coup. In 1920 when the Congress was a national movement as distinct from a political party, its venerated leaders formulated a policy of linguistic restructuring of India. This seemed logical at the time because of the artificiality of colonial Britain's division of the country into "presidencies" and the suppression of all local cultures.

After independence, however, the same venerated leaders recognised a potentially disruptive side to the idea of promoting linguistic identities. On the initiative of Dr Rajendra Prasad, who would become India's first President, a Linguistic Provinces Commission was set up in 1948. Concluding that language-based division of India would "not be in the larger interests of the Indian nation", the Commission recommended the restructuring of Bombay, Madras and Central Provinces on the basis of "geographical continuity, financial self-sufficiency and ease of administration".

If this scheme had been implemented in time, "Bombay" would have made way for Maharashtra and Gujarat, and "Madras" for Andhra peacefully. But the Nehru Government sat on the report until Potti Sriramulu fasted until death and rioting spread in 1952. The very next year the Government appointed the States Reorganisation Commission and Andhra became the first linguistic state of India. Even then decisions on Gujarat and especially Bombay city were delayed until death and destruction went out of control -- and the Government yielded. Are we seeing a repeat of the same shortsightedness of the past?

There is a good case for scientifically conceptualised smaller states in a country of baffling diversities. Such a set up can help the advancement of areas far removed from the capitals of big states and therefore neglected. But this is a matter that needs to be handled with the utmost care and wisdom, keeping in mind the country's long-term interests and not the short-term advantages of this party or that. It is the latter approach that saw the birth of Andhra in violence and now the death of Andhra in violence.

If the cynicism of the present ruling class holds, our 29-state country may soon become a 35- or 40-state country. That many more Governors, Chief Ministers, MLAs, limousines and bungalows will literally make it "the more the merrier" for the beneficiaries although for the people it will be a case of "the more the messier". Demands for Gorkhaland, Bodoland and Karbi Anglong (Assam) are already erupting into violence. Vidarbha and as many as five regions of UP are sizzling. A responsible Government and responsible opposition parties would agree on a common approach to so complex a problem. The prudent course would be to appoint a second States Reorganisation Commission so that the issues involved can be studied in a holistic, controlled and systematic manner. What the country needs is a unified policy in handling regional demands with a national perspective. If, on the contrary, selfishness persists, the ultimate victor will Winston Churchill who predicted that India would disintegrate into small nations.