The 29th State

The big talk in India is that the government has effectively caved into demands for a new state to be created by carving the Telangana region out of Andrha Pradesh. They made the decision late on Wednesday after a hunger strike by K Chandrashekar Rao, head of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi political party, entered its 11th day.

It’s a battle that dates back before even independence and there is a strong case behind it. Even though the planned state would include the state capital Hyderabad, a major IT hub that is home to Google and Microsoft outsourcing centres, the Telangana region has long played second fiddle to the wealthier coastal region. The sheer size of the state – it held 76 million at the 2001 census – has made it impossible to cater equally to the disparate regions. Already, another group have called for the state to be split into three with the creation of Greater Rayalaseema in the southwest and other tribes are demanding their own slice of state.

However, there are some big problems with what happened this week:

Fumbling under pressure. Hunger strikes don’t have much to do with rational argument, but they are effective at rallying your base. The government realised Rao was serious and that this was not going to go down well in a state that had already seen widespread strikes over the past week. Controlling the public outcry required concessions, but the way in which the Congress party went about it showed a serious lack of judgement. The failure to consult local politicians and opposition led 102 members of the state assembly to submit their resignations the next day, including 57 Congress members. A fresh political crisis has been sparked by the government’s ‘unilateral’ decision and today has seen widespread protests in the non-Telangana regions.

Sub-state nationalism. Ethnic and linguistic divisions, whether along separatist or religious lines, are a constant source of tension and violence across India. The division of states similarly becomes enfused with claims to ethnic rights, not least because they are a highly effective political tool. But there are far more legitimate reasons for carving up states, many of which are too large (Uttar Pradesh in particular) or have become split by different levels of development (as has happened in Andrha Pradesh). The fear that linguistic movements erode attachment to Mother India are probably overstated – the beef is with the state system, not the country. But by playing to the emotional form of politics seen over the past fortnight, the government undermines the rational debate that should be taking place. Already, the move has spurred the Golkhas in Darjeeling and will no doubt see a string of claims reenergised across the country, including the more violent separatism of the northeast. For the full list of aspirant states, look here.

Concession before detail. The government appears to have agreed in principle without considering any of the hugely complicated details. It is not clear what happens to Hyderabad or where the next capital should be. Despite the uproar, all the government has actually agreed is to begin the process. If it fails, or is dragged out too long, the fall-out could be even more serious than the trouble experienced this week.

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