The Congress will have to explain how passing the Telangana bill with inadequate representation from Andhra Pradesh in Parliament will help the state or its people.
In breathtaking scenes from the Lok Sabha, a ruling party MP from Vijaywada, concluding that salt was an overused political symbol, sprayed pepper in the House and an opposition party MP tried to wield a knife to hurt himself. The spectacular deployment of spice and knife by MPs on a busy day in office seems to have snuffed out discussion on the larger issue of what is being sought to be done, and how.
Propelled by Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Kiran Kumar Reddy’s rebellion, the Andhra assembly, in a dramatic week, discussed the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill 2013 and rejected it by a voice vote on January 31 — all of the proceedings lasting less than two minutes. However, using the right Parliament has under the Constitution to redraw state boundaries (Article 3) even if state assemblies are not in agreement, the Centre prepared a bill and has decided to ensure it goes through. The political reasons are shrewd and it must do so, say those in government, in order to at least keep its credibility in the Telangana region and “push the ambivalent BJP to commit to what is effectively the Congress position and limit the TDP and YSR Congress in the Seemandhra region”.
But as it prepared for T-day this week, things got more one-sided. With six expulsions earlier and later 17 suspensions, India may just end up in an unprecedented situation where a state is bifurcated with no voices from that state present in Parliament.
Andhra is the first, and now the oldest, linguistic state in India. It planted the seeds of an idea that Jawaharlal Nehru did not much care for, but one he had to give in to precisely because of the agitation of the Andhras wanting to break free from Madras and Tamil domination. This linguistic state resulted in more such, and also became a principle that settled the language question, one of the most contentious ideas in independent India.
It was the death, resulting from his hunger fast, of Potti Sriramulu, the Telugu leader of Vishala Andhra (a land for Telugu speakers) in December 1952 that forced Nehru’s hand. A States Reorganisation Commission was set up, and what followed the soothing of the heartburn over language was decades of relative peace in multilingual India. Linguistic states also meant that the federal question within the Indian Union could be discussed calmly — something that strengthened the idea of India.
There were several other demands for small states and hill states, and sub-regional questions. But like the ones in Maharashtra, West Bengal or even Andhra (in the 1970s), these were managed within the “development” framework by either allowing smaller states like Himachal Pradesh, or autonomous councils or space in the Constitution for areas like the Vidarbha or Telangana regions. And when the question of dividing “large” states into “smaller” units came up again in 2000, the ruling NDA went about establishing “viability” as a reason for doing this. The Congress disagreed and the CWC, in a resolution in 2001, suggested that a second States Reorganisation Commission be set up as smaller states, in its view, were neither viable nor desirable.
The UPA government’s appointment of the Srikrishna committee in 2010 to analyse and recommend what should be done with competing demands from Andhra was a step in the right direction. But the desire to do something dramatic, to prevent another single formation from benefiting from the loss to its electoral fortunes expected by the Congress, has guided policy.
Now, at a time when the anticipation of the 16th general elections due in about eight weeks has understandably created uncertainty, the BJP and TDP can, of course, be castigated for not disclosing their cards and enjoying the discomfort of the ruling party. But it is for the ruling Congress to explain why it is disregarding every rule it has invoked on such a historically contentious question since December 2009 — two months after it lost Y.S.R. Reddy.
It went on to defy the recommendations of the committee it set up, the advice of the chief minister it picked to steer the transition and its own MLAsy. And finally, this week, it appeared that the majority of the MPs of the state (with several of them from coastal Andhra, Rayalaseema and Telangana suspended or expelled) will not be heard in the House at all while the bill is “debated”.
The Congress will have to really stretch the rulebook to show how trying to “pass” a bill like this, on such an important and emotive issue, in the absence of any voice from the region works in the best interests of the state, its people and the rest of India, or for the principle of allowing debate within the hallowed precincts of Parliament.