Telangana, India’s newest state, votes to determine its first government


On June 2, Telangana, an otherwise landlocked region in the center of India, will become the country’s newest state, carved out of the existing state of Andhra Pradesh.India Flag Icon

Today,  Telangana’s voter determined the shape of the new state’s first-ever government, as they elect all 119 members of the incipient state legislative assembly.

What is Telangana and why is it soon to become India’s 29th state?

The story of Telangana’s (final) emergence after years of statehood protests is a case study in the growth of regional parties at the expense of India’s national parties — and the changing nature of governing coalitions within India’s central government.

First, if you’ll bear with me, some history about statehood in India.

When India reviewed its state boundaries in the late 1950s and largely rearranged those boundaries on the basis of language, its leaders ultimately combined it with the coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema regions (together, the non-Telangana regions are referred to as ‘Seemanhdra’) to form Andhra Pradesh, currently one of India’s largest states and its fifth-most populous. Telugu is the predominant language across all regions of Andhra Pradesh. Nonetheless, Andhra had been part of the British-governed Madras Presidency before independence, while Telangana had been part of the princely state of Hyderabad. That meant that there were significant social, cultural and economic differences between the two regions.

When the national government formed Andhra Pradesh in 1956, it tried to reassure Telangana’s leaders that the region wouldn’t be subordinated to the interests of coastal Andhra. As soon as the 1960s, however, a separatist movement emerged to invalidate the merger between Andhra and Telangana It’s not based on language (because mostly everyone throughout AP speaks Telugu), but on economic and political rationales. There’s a sense of grievance that while Telangana provides nearly 40% of the population and over 75% of the state’s revenue, it has been systemically underrepresented among political appointments, decision-making and budget allocation.

Though Telangana movements have ebbed and flowed for a half-century, the most recent statehood movement actually accomplished its goal. There’s no one more responsible for that than Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao (known as ‘KCR’), who formed the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), a political party devoted specifically to Telangana statehood. Previously, KCR (pictured above) had been a member of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP, తెలుగు దేశం పార్టీ), a regional party that has historically competed with the national Indian National Congress (Congress, भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) throughout Andhra Pradesh.

KCR, in the 1990s, served as the deputy speaker of the AP legislative assembly. When he broke in 2001 to form the TRS, he quickly gained momentum — not enough to win control of the AP assembly, of course, but he created enough of a presence to advance the cause of statehood.

It’s largely KCR’s personal appeal that explains why Telangana will be a state in June. It was his five-day hunger strike in 2012 that forced the issue of statehood with India’s Congress-led central government, and it’s his efforts that won concession for statehood from both the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी), the chief opposition at the national level, and the TDP, the chief opposition at the state (AP) level.

But Congress had its own reasons to advance Telangana statehood aggressively. In an era where regional parties are gaining ground at the expense of both the BJP and Congress, it saw the opportunity to align with TRS as an incentive to promote KCR’s cause. So it fast-tracked Telangana statehood earlier this year, despite the (purely symbolic) rejection of Telangana statehood in a vote by the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly, all in the hopes that the TRS would align itself with Congress in the current national elections.

At the national level, the TDP has aligned with the BJP as part of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and Congress had hoped that, after delivering statehood, the TRS would join the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA). When KCR and his party cadres ultimately didn’t join forces with Congress, its leaders, including Sonia Gandhi, lashed out at the TRS for what it called its opportunism. But with Congress poised to suffer a historic defeat after an uninspired campaign, who could blame them?

The entire arc of KCR’s campaign for Telangana’s statehood — and his subsequent turn against what Congress believed was always a quid-pro-quo deal for the TRS to support Congress in 2014 in exchange for statehood — is a perfect example of how India’s regional parties are growing, making it increasingly hard for either Congress or the BJP to win a truly national mandate.

Hyderabad, the booming capital, will continue to be the joint capital of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for the next ten years, at which point the remaining Andhra Pradesh will have to find a new capital within its own territory.

Telangana’s voters have elected 17 members to the Lok Sabha (लोक सभा) in today’s election phase, and the rest of Andhra Pradesh will elect 25 more members in next week’s phase on May 7.

In Telangana, the TRS is forecast to win the greatest number of seats, largely at Congress’s expense (though the BJP may win up to three seats, according to some polls). In the rest of Andhra Pradesh, the race is between the TDP and the newly formed Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRC, వై యస్ ఆర్ కాంగ్రెస్ పార్టీ, Youth, Labour and Peasant Congress Party), a breakaway party from Congress formed in 2009, leaving Congress and the BJP with little hope of winning any of the remaining 25 seats.

But in Telangana, where voters today also chose all 119 members of the state government, KCR — the father of Telangana’s statehood — is the frontrunner to become its first chief minister. There’s a question, however, whether the TRS, having accomplished the sole goal of its existence, will flourish now that Telangana is on the path to statehood. If it doesn’t win an absolute majority, most observers expect that it will form a governing coalition with Congress:

TRS sources said KCR is of the view that if the pink party falls short of getting the majority by about 10 seats or less, it can seek the support of the MIM, CPI and independents. “However, we are of the view that in the event of a hung Assembly, a coalition with the Congress would ensure a stable government in Telangana that can last for five years without being shaky at any time,” a party source confided.

Congress leaders are delighted with KCR’s assertion to a TV news channel two days ago that Congress president Sonia Gandhi deserves all the credit for granting Telangana. “At least, he had the decency to acknowledge the truth. At this juncture, no talk has been initiated between the two parties. But I am confident that we would come together in the interest of the development of the new state,” a Congress source told TOI.

Though it won’t have access to any ports, Telangana’s economic outlook is strong, given Hyderabad’s growing importance as an urban financial center within India. With over 35 million residents, it  will remain larger than Kerala and many other mid-sized Indian states (the remaining Andhra Pradesh will have over 49 million residents, which means it will be India’s 11th most populous state even after the split).

One looming issue is whether India’s Maoist Naxalite forces will use the opportunity to launch more attacks — Hyderabad has, in the past, been a target of Naxalite agitation.

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