Trying to understand the Telangana situation

Let me state at the outset that this is a dispassionate outsider’s perspective. It’s also rather abstract – I don’t really care about the emotional factor behind the split or the non-split, or how Andhra Pradesh came into being. All that, in my opinion, is secondary.

So the basic issue is this. There is the state of Andhra Pradesh. One part of the state (a minority) thinks it will be better off being a separate state. So for years now they have been clamouring for a separate state. The rest of the state doesn’t want to let them go. And so we have a deadlock.

Let us go back to 2000, when three new states were created in India, breaking up Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Those three states also had long-standing demands for separation. All those states had seen “movements” to that effect. The emotional factor was high. The key point, however, is that in each of those states, the rest of the state willingly let go of the breakaway part. Each of the three assemblies passed resolutions recommending the breakaway states. So finally when those states were created the process was rather peaceful and amicable.

That is not happening in Andhra. The Rest-of-Andhra is unwilling to let go of Telangana. Politicians across parties think a breakaway Telangana is a bad idea. The Andhra Pradesh assembly is unlikely to pass a resolution recommending the split any time in the near future. Right now the central government is trying to bulldoze the split and we are seeing the chaos that we are. The question is how we can do this better.

What helped the formation of Uttarakhand, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh is that their geography is very different from that of their parent states. More importantly, these three states have the kind of geography that makes it hard to govern them. Hilly or forested tracts, with slow transportation and underdeveloped roads meant that administering these areas was costly. Essentially if you did a cost-benefit analysis it made sense to let go of these states – it made the job of the original state government administratively easier.

The problem with the Andhra split is that the capital city Hyderabad lies in smack in the middle of the region that wants to breakaway. People from Rest-of-Andhra have invested heavily in the city, and fear for their investments in case it becomes part of a separate state. It doesn’t help matters that people from Telangana and from the Rest-of-Andhra don’t particularly trust each other. The former claim that the latter have been persecuting them, and the latter fear the same in case the former get their own state. Events over the last few months have only made this trust deficit significantly worse.

What needs to happen is that Telangana needs to assure the Rest-of-Andhra that the people in the latter won’t lose out due to the state split. One way to do this is to sweeten the deal in terms of Hyderabad. One option that had come up would have made Hyderabad a union territory, thus putting it outside the control of Telangana. Another would be for Rest-of-Andhra to be assured of an annual payment based on the state taxes raised from Hyderabad city. This, however, is unlikely to work given the lack of mutual trust.

There is a third option – which is what is being played out now. Telangana acts as a tough guy, and a bully. One who will bully its way into getting its own state. The way this is probably going to work is that by continuously rioting in Hyderabad, it will force businesses to leave the city. As things get worse, the economic value of the city of Hyderabad fall so much that Rest-of-Andhra see no value in holding on to it and vote for the resolution to split the state. Of course, this is not good for anyone since this involves value destruction, but this seems the way things are headed right now.

What might also work (destructive, but not as much as the above) is for Rest-of-Andhra to get a strong message that the state is going to be split sometime in the near future and they have no say in it (this is probably the Central Government’s message currently). Currently, people from Rest-of-Andhra are hopeful that the split won’t happen and are thus holding on to their investments in Hyderabad. As there is more conviction that the state is going to split, they will start slowly withdrawing their investments, so that at ┬ásome point in the near future, there will be enough politicians from Rest-of-Andhra that will vote in favour of the split in the state.

Note that not all legislators from Rest-of-Andhra need to support the state split. Telangana contains 119 out of the 294 seats in the Andhra Assembly. Assuming that there is bipartisan support for the split among Telangana MLAs, they need the support of only 29 more legislators to have their way. Of course there is the Anti-Defection Law and all that, but this is some food for thought.

Lastly, I don’t think the current process of the Union Government bulldozing the state split is going to work out in the long term. You don’t want to have neighbouring states that mistrust each other. Yes, Andhra Pradesh is a vast state and might be tough to administer. But no decision on its split should be taken without the resolution by its own assembly.