After decades of prevarication, the Congress has finally accepted the demand for a Telangana state. The timing of this decision, however, smacks of outright political opportunism. The number of Congress MPs and allies elected from the state had played a crucial role in the formation of both the UPA 1 and UPA 2 governments. The untimely death of chief minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy virtually led to the disintegration of the Congress where his family’s claims to inheritance of his political legacy came to the fore.
With the 2014 general elections approaching, unless its house is set in order in Andhra Pradesh, the Congress’s proposed return to lead the Centre is virtually ruled out. The decision to acquiesce to the demand for a separate Telangana state is thus an effort at cutting electoral losses. The Congress now hopes to garner a majority with the 17 MPs from Telangana and leave the room open for post-poll manoeuvering in the remaining part of the state.
The ongoing bandh in the Darjeeling Hill Areas in West Bengal demanding a separate state of Gorkhaland and violence rocking Assam with the demand for a separate Bodoland are chilling expressions of the grave implications that are in store if the existing boundaries of the Indian states are changed. Currently, there are over 20 demands for separate states, all over the country. By succumbing to realpolitick the Congress has reopened a Pandora’s box.
It was after decades of mass movements and intense deliberations that the modern Indian republic evolved as a political structure whose essence lay in the principles of federalism. In the path-breaking Kesavananda Bharati judgment (whose 40th anniversary is this year) the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament representing the sovereign will of the people can amend the Constitution but not its “basic structure or essential features”. One of the essential features of the Constitution has remained the principles of federalism that shaped the political structure of our republic.
Article I of our Constitution declares “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States”. After nearly a tumultuous decade of efforts and struggles to integrate the over 660 princely states in the Indian Union, the question arose as to how the Indian states should be re-organised. Initially Jawaharlal Nehru favoured the organisation of states on the grounds of ‘administrative efficiency’. This, however, betrayed the Congress’s own understanding when in 1928, the Motilal Nehru Committee recommended the principle of ‘linguistic’ organisation as the basis of the Congress’s functional structure. This was the explicit recognition of the fact that amongst India’s rich diversity, language is both an emotive and political element which makes eminent administrative sense and exemplifies unity amidst diversity. Much before independence, this found reflection in the resolution of the Karachi session of the AICC in 1931. This resolution finds its concrete expression in the post-independence Indian Constitution. This, in fact, was the implicit social contract upon which the modern Indian nation was founded. As Prabhat Patnaik says; “this social contract was meant to achieve not only unity among the people and inclusiveness never experienced in history, but also in the process, a transcendence of their mere empirical identities.” People were not forced to forget or abandon their identities, but were urged to forge an overarching social identity, beyond their individual identities — the unfolding of the idea of India.
This understanding found an emotional connect when people started demanding the re-organisation of Indian states on the linguistic principle. Ironically, it is the Telugu-speaking people who fired the first salvo with the demand for ‘Vishalandhra’, soon followed by the movement for ‘Aikya Kerala’, ‘Samyukta Maharashtra’. This finally materialised almost a full decade after independence, in 1956. Any attempt to disturb this basis for the Indian states is bound to get uncontrollably complex, with the expression of other identities as the basis for the formation of states. Can we as a country afford to fritter away our national energies in conflicts and tensions at this time when many basic problems remain to be tackled? Surely, if a rethink on the criteria for the basis of the organisation of Indian states is to be done, then that cannot be based on knee-jerk reactions responding to electoral expediency.
The splintering of Indian states into numerous smaller ones further weakens the strength of Indian federalism and promotes the shift towards a unitary state structure. When, say, 42 MPs from Andhra Pradesh or 80 from Uttar Pradesh stand up to demand their rightful share in Parliament, few can ignore that. As the relative strength of the elected representatives from the state diminishes, its dependence on the ‘mercy’ of the Central government proportionately increases. It is not without reason that many of these smaller regional parties are compelled to do business with the Central government irrespective of their political positions. Already today all state governments complain justifiably, that their finances are continuously declining. Leave alone equally sharing total tax revenue between the Centre and all the state governments, currently the finance commission has devolved less than 1/3rd to the states’ share. Under these circumstances, a further redivision of Indian states will only strengthen the drift towards centralisation of the Indian polity, which will have disastrous consequences for the unity and integrity of our country.
Our experience so far has shown that the creation of new states by themselves does not automatically improve the quality of life of its people. Unless there is a systematic planned economic intervention this would not be possible. The current trend is to ignore this truth and rely more and more on the neon gods of crony capitalism, much more manageable through ‘smaller’ states. It is time to reverse, not succumb to this trend.
Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP
The views expressed by the author are personal