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Uneasy alliance for the Congress in AP

April 20, 2004

There is a spectre haunting the Congress (I) -- the spectre of Potti Sriramulu. And Chandrababu Naidu for one could not be happier...

Potti Sriramulu has been largely forgotten outside his native Andhra Pradesh, but his work continues to wield influence on Indian politics.

The story goes back to 1920, when the Congress, at its Nagpur session, formally accepted the principle of linguistic states. After Independence, however, the Government of India chose not to implement the policy; having just endured a major vivisection on religious grounds, the last thing India's leaders wanted just then was several minor partitions on the principle of language. The resistance to calls for linguistic states was led by the first Union home ministers, Sardar Patel and Rajaji.

The matter might have ended there had it not been for the late Potti Sriramulu. He went on a fast unto death to demand the creation of a separate Andhra carved out of the sprawling state of Madras.

Unlike latter-day fasts 'unto death', Potti Sriramulu meant exactly what he said. His dying sparked a wave of protests, which Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru could not resist. (Another motive could have been a desire to clip Rajaji¹s wings as the latter -- enjoying a second stint as chief minister of Madras -- was showing distressing signs of independence.)

The Rayalaseema and coastal Andhra regions thus became the nucleus of the new Andhra state. Subsequently, following the reorganisation of states in 1956, Telangana was taken out of the old Hyderabad state, joining its fellow Telugu-speaking areas.

The move was controversial even before the new state of Andhra Pradesh came into being, with a sizeable section of opinion in Telangana resenting the merger. It was a major electoral issue down to the early 1970s, but seemed to have gradually tapered off since then.

It turned out that the movement was dormant rather than dead. The call for a separate Telangana was revived on a major
scale by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti, which went on to enjoy significant success in the last local-body elections. So much so that Sonia Gandhi decided to go in for a pre-poll electoral alliance with the new party.

This has led to some interesting twists. The Congress, which has always claimed credit for the creation of Andhra Pradesh, is now arm-in-arm with a party whose sole aim is the formation of a separate Telangana. The BJP, interestingly enough, has a prior record of being rather sympathetic to the call for a separate Telangana, though there is no official position on the issue out of deference to Chandrababu Naidu. (One of its more prominent campaigners, the actress Vijayashanthi -- the 'lady Amitabh' -- is on record as supporting the move.) The Telugu Desam Party, however, has always resisted the move.

The Congress(I)'s alliance with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti has come in handy for the wily chief minister. It has given him a handy stick with which to beat the Congress on the head in coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema (which together constitute about two-thirds of Andhra Pradesh). He is now touring the state, accusing Sonia Gandhi and her party of betraying Potti Sriramulu's sacrifice and the work put in by the pioneering chief minister, 'Andhra Kesari' T Prakasam. The silence of the BJP -- apart from an occasional remark by the irrepressible Vijayashanthi -- has given him room for manoeuvre.

The chief minister is also making much of the fact that the Naxalites, whose breeding ground is Telangana, have made the Telugu Desam the chief focus of their attacks. (This ultra-Left group has supported the Telangana movement since the 1950s.) This worries voters in Telangana who may like the idea of a separate state in principle, but like peace and quiet even more. Of course, opinion in Telangana was never unanimous on the issue of a separate state...

The Congress(I) simply doesn't have a clue how to react to Chandrababu Naidu. It can't rebut the call for Telangana for fear of antagonising the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. Simultaneously, it is haunted by memories of 'Telugu atma-gowravam' (Telugu self-respect), the battle cry with which the late N T Rama Rao formed the first non-Congress government in Andhra Pradesh.

Every Congressman agrees that allies were needed to take on the BJP and the Telugu Desam. The Telangana Rashtra Samiti was the best choice (along with some marginal support from the Left). But it might have been better had there been more time to consider the repercussions, and to prepare for them. Now, with fewer than 10 days before even the second phase of polling in Andhra Pradesh ends, it is just too late.

The Congress(I) is bound to do better than in 1999 when it won just five of Andhra Pradesh's 42 Lok Sabha seats. But if there was any realistic chance of wresting back control of the state, the snap marriage with the Telangana Rashtra Samiti has effectively ended them. Chandrababu Naidu always had a good chance of coming back to power, but he may have the Congress(I) to thank for putting a safety net under him!

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T V R Shenoy

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