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Andhra Pradesh: the politics of separation December 17, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : India, Stoddart, Brian , trackback

Brian Stoddart

Union Home Minister Chidambaram’s announcement that Andhra Pradesh would have its Telangana component become a separate state emerged at an inopportune moment in the region’s history and, at face value, seems a high risk strategy from the Congress political viewpoint. Currently India’s fourth largest state by area and fifth by population, Andhra is central to Congress success nationally proceeding from its strong local base. Chief Minister K. Rosaiah’s Government emerged from Congress holding 158 seats in the State’s 294 seat parliament and on that basis his predecessor, Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy who died recently in a helicopter crash, was an important Congress figure nationally.

YSR consistently opposed calls for a Telangana state, as has influential former Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu, present leader of the opposition Telugu Desam Party. Following the Union’s announcement, over 30% of Congress MLAs have tendered resignations, leading to the distinct possibility of Congress having to resort to a coalition, perhaps even losing power, or maybe having the state placed under President’s rule. With the range of opposition and the high stakes for Congress, the decision seems odd.

The evolution of Andhra Pradesh holds some clues, though. During the later nineteenth century the emergent Andhra movement was based almost totally in the coastal regions of the present state, with some support in the present Rayalaseema. By the early twentieth century that movement was almost synonymous with that of Congress. In the period leading up until 1947, the call for a separate state was supported by Congress in that from 1920 onwards the Andhra provincial Congress Committee ran regional affairs within the British administrative unit of the Madras Presidency. The call for an Andhra state was effectively subordinated to that for independence, but once independence was in sight the call for a state grew.

The fact that Andhra did not eventuate until 1953 and Andhra Pradesh until 1956 indicates there was opposition to the idea. In large part that was because the Telugu-speaking Telangana districts, a substantial part of the new entity, were not closely connected with coastal Andhra or the Rayalaseema politically, economically or socially. The regions shared a language, but even that differed substantially. For centuries Telangana lay within the Nizam of Hyderabad’s dominions. After that princely state disappeared following the 1948 police action there was increased interaction between the constituent regions, but in truth the bonds were weak.

The original formulation of Andhra Pradesh was not accepted universally, Telangana’s inclusion controversial precisely because its integration seemed questionable and because Hyderabad’s history did not make it an automatically popular choice as capital. At issue from the start were those old political stalking horses, the guarantee of adequate regional representation within the new entity, and an equitable share of resources.

That last one was and remains particularly powerful, because the three regional components within Andhra Pradesh were and remain strikingly different. The coastal region grew in prosperity from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, thanks to a massive irrigation and canal system based on the lower reaches of the Kistna and Godavari rivers. The landholders who gained most became prominent in Congress and in the Andhra movement. The Rayalaseema was always much drier and less prosperous, while Telangana was perennially dry to the point of being arid and consequently poor. The socio-economic differences between the regions were stark, and from the beginning Hyderabad had a tough time in trying to be seen as even-handed.

The demands for a separate Telangana emerged early and stayed, driven intellectually out of centres like Osmania University and calibrated against the drift of state politics. As Congress remained dominant at state and Union level the movement was relatively quiescent, but as that dominance waned the demands for Telangana grew along with perceptions of inequitable treatment. As the TDP rose as a major alternative in 1983 under movie star N.T. Rama Rao the Telangana option remained subdued because of his emphasis on social uplift and the development of the Telugus as a whole. Two developments altered that, however.

First, Telangana’s poverty, especially in relation to the coast, made it a likely source for political activism and that emerged in form of the Maoist Naxalite movement, and the area remains a stronghold to this day. YSR opposed statehood for Telangana because, he argued, it would simply legitimate the Naxalite movement. Second, some of that development might have been stayed but NTR’s reformist son-in-law Chandrababu Naidu changed the TDP’s political direction. During his 1995-2004 regime he drove the development of Hyderabad as a modern, hi-tech city state and that exacerbated differences between Hyderabad and the coast and intensified resentment in Telangana.

When YSR regained the state for Congress he attempted to reassert the interests of all and that helped diffuse tension, but by then the demand for Telangana was well under way. YSR’s sudden death, the on-going Naxalite activities, and the populist activities of the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi seem to have merged into one of those moments that might be termed “ the evil of two lessers”. If Telangana is separated, as seems likely, then it will be a difficult state for all concerned, and will strengthen the calls for other separations, perhaps even the Rayalaseema. The implications for Congress are substantial, but no less so for the Union that will have an even more difficult balancing act to conduct.

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