Uncertainty in India

Brian Stoddart examines the possible directions of the emerging economic powerhouse and what they may mean for onlookers.

Now that Manmohan Singh’s Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Party (UPA) has taken the inevitable step of dividing Andhra Pradesh to create the new state of Telangana, India’s political fault lines have widened further.

That was signalled, particularly, by Narendra Modi and his national advisors determining that a mass rally in Hyderabad would be his first official outing as the BJP’s campaign chief for the 2014 national elections, lining up against the UPA.

This needs some unpacking, because why would a geographic and organisational shift spark such moves?

The inevitability of Telangana was set from late 2010 when the-then Home Minister and now Finance Minister P. Chidambaram allowed that the government would contemplate carving Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh. While there had been a decades-long campaign for Telangana, the essential significance of Chidambaram’s declaration lay in the fact that Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s largest and more prosperous states, had in 2009 returned to the national parliament the largest number of Congress legislators from any state. That is, Andhra Pradesh was central to the success of Congress holding government. Given that, the issue of Telangana was always going to have wider political ramifications.

The reason for that was simple. Within Andhra Pradesh there were fissures between three regions: coastal Andhra which is a rich agricultural area; Telangana which largely approximated the old princely state of Hyderabad taken over by national police/military action in 1948; and Rayalaseema, a dry and relatively poor region on the edge of Tamil Nadu. These regions were long riven by mistrust and envy over issues ranging from access to the waters of the Krishna and Godavari rivers through to alleged discrimination in the allocation of employment opportunities.

That made Modi’s choice of Hyderabad even more powerful, because the UAP has directed that Hyderabad will be a joint capital for Telangana and Andhra for ten years. That has sparked two reactions. One is fierce opposition to the move, especially by the Telangana lobby which sees Hyderabad as a natural centre for the region and now new state. The other is a scramble to settle the issue of where the new Andhra capital will be, with at least six cities pushing hard for the privilege, and benefits.

Some notable symbols and confusions lurk amidst all this, making it something of a litmus test for the next several months of national campaigning which begin with the UPA in weakened condition and most of the hard running coming from the BJP.

One major irony is attached to Modi’s launch in Hyderabad. Somewhere around forty percent of the ten million population there is Muslim, and Modi’s major ongoing political problem is his controversial role in handling the anti-Muslim riots that broke out in Gujarat in 2002, leading to over a thousand deaths under his Chief Ministership. A series of legal and civil inquiries have more or less cleared him of allowing the riots to escalate, but speculation continues, especially now as it is widely anticipated that Modi will lead the BJP into the 2014 elections and very likely become Prime Minister with a potentially raised atmosphere for communal tension.

The BJP (“Indian People’s Party”) was formed as recently as 1980 and gained widespread support through its advocacy of Hindutva or “cultural nationalism”. Put perhaps too broadly, the BJP became the voice for conservative Hinduism. As it gained in strength and eventually came to form government the party had to attempt to soften that hard face, and to some extent has done so even if some factions remain committed to a strongly Hindu position. Modi’s ascendancy brings all that into sharp focus given his own background as a leading youth member of the party’s paramilitary training associate, and as an advocate of hardline policies in the past.

By going to Hyderabad there was a clear attempt by Modi and the BJP to position him in a more moderate spotlight. His message was threefold: the BJP has a track record for creating new states in response to popular wish; he supports Telangana and Andhra equally; and he sees no reason why the two new states should not get along together.

That latter point is the more breathtaking one because of Telangana’s strong Muslim connection especially via Hyderabad. This is particularly so because in February 2013 two bombs killed seventeen people in the city, and the persistent interpretation is that the bombings were the result of Islamist activities, with the national BJP leader Sushma Swaraj provocatively linking the blasts to a speech by Hyderabad’s leading Muslim politician.

Like many observers, Modi sees the Andhra Pradesh situation as central to a resolution of the 2014 elections, and his attempts to build bridges there and to soften his hardline image foreshadow a much broader campaign to reduce anxiety about his possible approaches to communal developments as well as regional and global issues should he become Prime Minister. The most obvious of these concerns is what might be his possible approach to Pakistan.

If Modi is attempting to construct a position, the same can scarcely be said yet of the Congress which has so much to lose here. The most obvious point to make is that Modi’s putative Congress counterpart, Rahul Gandhi, has been reluctant to commit himself publicly. He has certainly been involved behind the scenes in the lead-up to the Telangana announcement, but there were rumours he and his mother Sonia, the real Congress supremo, disagreed on the approach, and he has certainly been under pressure from pro-Telangana camps.

Of course, Congress faces complexities that Modi does not, in that any government making the decision would incur criticism whatever it did, and that has proved to be the case. Demonstrations both in support of and in opposition to the decision have occurred daily since the announcement. Congress also has the problem of making crucial calls on which way some splinter groups will move as a result of Telangana, most notably that led by Jagan Mohan Reddy, the son of a former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister and who split from mainstream Congress when he himself was not appointed Chief Minister. Awaiting trial on some corruption charges, Jagan has resigned as an MP in protest at the creation of Telangana. He has a strong following, and one complex line of analysis has it that Congress decided to create Telangana simply to undermine some of his popular following in advance of the elections. If that is so, it is a high risk strategy that indicates just how serious the Congress and UPA position is now.

Even so, it is apparent that Rahul is reluctant to step up to lead Congress against Modi and the BJP at this point, which has to give Modi the advantage. That will worry many countries around the world, almost totally because of concerns about what a Modi-led BJP government might do in relation to issues like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Islamist issues in a region where both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapon capability. For many years after the Gujarat riots, for example, both the British and American governments refused to allow Modi visiting visas, but in recent months that stance has softened with the British, in particular, pointing to Modi’s good economic stewardship of his state.

Modi has a big following among India’s leading industrialists as well as overseas leaders for his apparently magic touch on business creation, and that is an enormous plus at a time when countries around the world are scrambling to get a foothold in the Indian economy. While there is a massive difference between leading a state and leading the country in economic terms, Modi’s stature is enhanced by the UPA’s fading reputation for economic and business leadership in the wake of scandals involving the allocation of coal and media spectrum licenses, among other issues. For that reason, Modi will be even more keen to mend his communal bridges, as much for foreign as for domestic consumption.

How the Telangana-Andhra issue plays out in the ensuing months, then, has a far wider resonance and implication than its specific state location. Its resolution and handling may well determine India’s immediate and medium term direction.

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