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Bengal’s Successor

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West Bengal had made its name as the ungovernable state of India. Not that it did not have a government; it had in fact India's most stable, least displaceable government. But it faced a smouldering rebellion, which finally succeeded and threw the communists out. Now that West Bengal is quiet, political life in India is in danger of getting staid. Luckily, rescue is on the way. Telengana promises to be the Bengal of the 21st century.

It took 31 years for change to come to Bengal; Telengana has been waiting much longer. Telengana is not a state waiting to happen; it is a state that was created and then obliterated. In its brief existence, it was called Hyderabad. It came into being with Indian annexation of Hyderabad state in 1948. But then, Potti Sriramulu of Madras wanted to free his fellow Telugus; rather than submit himself to Madrasi domination, he starved himself to death. The Telugu provinces of Madras were separated and herded into Andhra Pradesh. The new mafia of the Andhras had the coastal districts; it longed to annex Hyderabad state, for then it would be able to build dams on the Krishna and Godavari rivers and take the water to the coastal districts for irrigation. Potti's suicide gave it a chance; it forced Nehru to set up the Fazal Ali Commission on state reorganisation. The commission noted the reluctance of Telenganites to merge with the coastal people. They feared that the coastals would take away revenue, capture the bureaucracy and prohibit alcohol in Hyderabad. And so they did when linguistic mega-Andhra Pradesh was created in 1956. Hyderabadis went about shouting "Idli sambar go back", but could not get rid of the coastals.

They still have not; and if the central government has its way, they will not. For although the Srikrishna committee it appointed laid out all the options with apparent fairness, in a secret chapter, it gave the government some questionable advice on how to outwit and defeat Telengana separatists. As feared by them, Andhra Pradesh has been an excellent proposition for the coastals, who are loath to give up the water and the revenue, and have the political muscle to wrestle Telengana to the ground.

So the present indications are that the centre will maintain the status quo, the Telenganites will continue to agitate, and the Andhra Pradesh government will continue to shoot the agitators. The government in Delhi learnt a lesson from its British predecessors that no popular demand should be conceded quickly without bloodshed, and it is determined to show the Telenganites that it is every inch as good as the British.

But the times have changed. In British times, the agitators swarmed the streets, offered the government an easy target, and waited to be attacked. The British too followed their own rules of the game: that the people should not be beaten by anything other than a four-foot lathi, and that Enfield single-shot 303s should not be used unless the crowd became violent. Now the game has changed. Guns have become smaller, lighter, faster and cheaper, and both rebels and the government find them more convenient. Guns are still not easy to get for rebels, but the Telenganites have only to change their nomenclature to Maoists, and little men will come out of the jungle and give them guns.

Disorder is bad for growth. Andhra Pradesh has been a frontrunner together with Tamil Nadu in the race for growth unleashed by the reforms of the 1990s; now the industries that have thrived in Hyderabad will look for other locations, and Maharashtra will get back into the race.

The saddest part is that the terrible costs, political as well as economic, are easily avoidable. Creation of Telengana requires one resolution to be passed by the Andhra legislative assembly and similar resolutions by the houses of parliament — half an hour's work altogether. About a dozen states have been created since the formation of the first Telengana, almost all peacefully. Only Telengana has led to a spate of violence because the coastals want the resources of Telengana and have the political power to hold on to them.

Indian states are dysfunctional, and no longer serve a democratic purpose. Now is the time to leave old-style states behind, and to reorganise India into city states — each million-plus city administering its own countryside. The revenue of cities would be used to develop their hinterland; the produce of the hinterland would find a market in its city. If states make economic sense, the petty quarrels of politicians will be left behind, and guns put away.

The author is Consultant Editor of Businessworld.

ashok(dot)desai(at)gmail(dot)com

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-08-2011)