It would be easy to see the fanning of the Telangana flames in 2009 as motivated by electoral concerns. With the party floundering after Y.S.R. Reddy’s death, it might have been in its interests to split Andhra Pradesh and minimise its losses from the large state, a Congress bastion for nearly a decade before that. But hopefully, that is too cynical an assessment. The argument for small states is an old one. The small state solution is now seen as one that is logical and based on local aspirations, tailored to alleviate a range of problems in a region. Moreover, after three new states were carved out in 2000, the linguistic lines of division did not seem sacrosanct anymore. But the evidence of small being beautiful is not unequivocal. In October 2001, the Congress Working Committee had approved of a party sub-committee’s suggestion to form a second States Reorganisation Commission to reconsider the matter.
In the calls for Gorkhaland in North Bengal or a separate Bundelkhand in Western UP, as well as in several parts of the Northeast, there lies the belief that a new capital, a separate assembly, a Raj Bhavan and more MLAs would address local problems better, that in the immediate-term at least, all these would empower locals more than distant state capitals. It is believed that by becoming smaller states, these regions would develop more. Critics argue that the problems of underdevelopment, poverty and governance are not always a function of scale. They could stem from various reasons — that these issues are not prioritised by the system or that the costs of poor governance are not high enough for elected representatives and officials to change their ways. Until that changes, carving out smaller states will not change the basic patterns of governance. You would more likely see the emergence of a few more chosen sets of contractors and cronies.
While several other issues received much attention in the polity last year, the small state argument simmered beneath the surface of a lot of the trouble that paralysed certain states, even leading to violence. The Assam turmoil, for instance, was closely linked to antagonisms sparked off by the idea of an exclusive and separate space for the Bodos within the state. After violence earlier in the year, Darjeeling leaders stood for the first elections to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration in July. Andhra Pradesh saw prolonged shut-downs, until fatigue set in. The Telangana agitation has been fanned again now by the deadlines that a nervous Delhi leadership keeps setting for itself.
What seems to be missing at the Centre is not strong leadership — a much-abused and dodgy idea — but firm signalling about where the Centre stands on small, or large, states. It has failed to publicly articulate its views on how developmental aspirations need to be addressed and lay out its own ideas about politics and empowerment.
The Srikrishna committee, set up to investigate the viability of division vis a vis the imperative to keep Andhra together, came up with startling figures on how backward some areas of the so-called prosperous regions were. The problem of uneven development seems to have its roots in the development trajectories generally followed by governments, not necessarily in divides along regional lines. Local leaderships find it easy to stoke regional fires and sustain them partly because the Centre has not taken a firm stand on the debate. Giving in to sub-regional demands on the basis of how much noise they make can boost other groups hoping to channelise sentiment into building “authentic” movements.
The frustration with the January 28 deadline on Telangana not being met has resulted in a degree of continued paralysis in one of India’s most dynamic states. Two ministers have also been dragged to court for breach of promise. Indeed, instead of announcing deadlines and backtracking on them, and summoning the hapless Andhra chief minister to the capital for ineffectual deliberations, the Centre should have invested more thought and clarity into taking a position on small states, or in the challenge of addressing popular grievances in backward regions.
But the Congress’s problem of not having a line on the creation of smaller states is part of a larger malaise. In spite of India having given its most decisive mandate at the Centre in 20 years to the Congress and its allies, the last two years have witnessed a government swinging between certainty and incoherence. Whether on corruption, on the challenge to the very idea of representative government, on violence against women or on foreign policy, debates have played out in a familiar pattern. With the Centre remaining ambivalent, they continue in an endless loop.
The idea of India, to which the Congress had a major contribution to make, is an evolving project. Technology and changing demographics have changed the rules of the game in the 21st century. At this juncture, it is critical for the Centre to lay down its line, but the Congress has refused to do this at several all-party meetings. Although the current bind on Telangana can be traced back to the “definitive” statements made in December 2009, the Centre was unable to follow up on them.
Indians will always love to debate and argue, but they do expect decisive governance from elected governments. The Centre must commit to an idea on Telangana, whether it envisages a unified state, a region governed by a territorial council or more imaginative, district-wise plans for the backward regions. And it cannot keep this idea close to its chest. Sometimes, there is nothing to be gained from seeming to occupy an ambiguous middle ground. There might, in fact, be much to lose.