Insider’s view of Telangana’s creation

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Bifurcating Andhra Pradesh

Jairam Ramesh

242 pages; Rs 500

In anger over their jobs being usurped by “outsiders”, the people demanded separation from the Union. No, we are not talking about citizens of the United Kingdom (UK) in 2016 but people of Telangana in the state of Andhra Pradesh in 1968. The people of the UK sought refuge under nationalism and culture to retaliate against perceived loss of jobs to people from other nations in the European Union (EU). The state of Telangana has the same culture, language and nationhood as the state of Andhra Pradesh. Yet, the people of Telangana demanded secession from Andhra Pradesh for very similar reasons as the UK from the EU, one of perceived unequal opportunities. It is a sobering reminder that demands for secession are mere manifestations of a deeper economic malaise. Former Union minister and Member of Parliament from the Congress party, Jairam Ramesh’s new book Old History New Geographyis a fascinating chronicle of the why and the how of the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh into two states.

Mr Ramesh has had the extraordinary fortune of a ringside view to some of the most momentous decisions in India’s legislative history — the 1991 economic reforms, the catapulting of environmental issues to the forefront and the division of Andhra Pradesh.Cannily, he has churned out books on all these experiences. As with his other books, it is a combination of generous doses of official notes and records, complemented with backroom political stories laced with funny anecdotes and wit. The book is structured into three broad parts — the historical context of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the drafting of the Bill to create a new state and the shepherding of the Bill through Parliament to become law.

The division of Andhra Pradesh will forever be associated with the “pepper spray” incident in Parliament in 2014, when a Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh sprayed pepper gas into the eyes of other MPs and the Speaker in protest against the division of his state. This was symbolic of the hapless state of the Congress back then, when its own MPs ran riot in Parliament and its own chief minister in Andhra Pradesh resigned in protest. Mr Ramesh doesn’t shy away from discussing these threadbare. Such refreshing candour in a conversational style makes this book a delightful read. The book begins with a meticulous documentation of the rich history behind the creation of India’s first linguistic state of Andhra Pradesh. The fact that the region of Telangana was first separate, then united and then separated again provides immense context to the division of Andhra Pradesh in 2014.

Some would argue that the decision to divide Andhra Pradesh was emblematic of the confusion that prevailed through most of the second tenure of the United Progressive Alliance. Mr Ramesh confronts this perception head on and attempts to clarify, though not convincingly enough. It nevertheless presents the “insider” view of the drama surrounding the division of Andhra Pradesh with all its embellishments of the surprise midnight announcement by the then Home Minister P Chidambaram, the electoral miscalculation of the Congress, mysterious blackouts in Parliament and an uprising within the Andhra Pradesh Congress.

The author was a key member of the group of ministers tasked with drafting the legislation for creating the new state. This is understandably a mammoth task, replete with complications of sharing of river waters to state finances to large infrastructure projects. While these can be dour topics for a book for the common person, Mr Ramesh’s personality of a “clever policy wonk in a politician’s clothing” presents a unique and interesting prism through which to view these developments.

Amid all the kerfuffle of a bicameral legislature and the consequent legislative paralysis today, this book presents fascinating insights into marshaling a Bill through both Houses of Parliament. The irony of the Telangana Bill was that both the ruling party (Congress) and the principal Opposition party (BJP) agreed on it but the primary opposition was from MPs and ministers within the Congress. The book is filled with rich anecdotes of dinner parties hosted by the prime minister, the author visiting various senior leaders of opposition parties in their homes and so on, to create a consensus. This can serve as a useful reminder of the seemingly forgotten nuances of policymaking in India’s multiparty democracy.

An entire chapter on “Amusing Musings”, the author’s personal dilemma over which team to support in the Hyderabad vs Karnataka Ranji Trophy cricket final of 1976 and an account of Rajaji’s acerbic wit before conceding to a Telugu-speaking state, are just some among the charming quirks woven into the book. The one disappointment is the absence of revelations of the thought process behind the decision to create the new state. The author only teasingly speculates that the timing of the Telangana decision “could have been”’ driven by electoral calculations, which, in hindsight, backfired spectacularly for the Congress.

Division of large states into smaller, manageable states will be an inevitable byproduct as states continue to grow rapidly. This book does well to document the complex process of creating one such new state out of a larger state. It does that in an easy to read, colloquial style rather than as a dull, academic case study.

Published on 29 June, 2016 in Business Standard