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Not only Telangana

UPA has missed the moment to set up a second states reorganisation commission.

Should Telangana be India’s 29th state? My answer is two-fold. Telangana deserves statehood, but the process followed was wrong.

Though the demand for Telangana is old, the government’s decision appears to be electorally driven. Of the six largest states — Uttar Pradesh (80 seats), Maharashtra (48), Andhra Pradesh (42), West Bengal (42), Bihar (40) and Tamil Nadu (39) — the Congress party is politically significant only in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. Indeed, with 33 seats won, Andhra was the single largest prize for the Congress in 2009. A separate Telangana can potentially save half of those seats for the party in 2014; otherwise, statewide erosion is more likely. Could the electoral logic be clearer?

We know that public policies are often linked to electoral motivations in democratic politics, but that is not a defensible reason to restructure political institutions. A distinction between policies and institutions is usually drawn in scholarship. By and large, policies tend to be more amendable than institutions. Once made, it is very hard to unmake institutions. A food security bill is not the same as forming a new state.

To evaluate Telangana’s case, we must begin with the original principles of Indian federalism. India’s freedom movement had committed itself to language-based federalism in 1920. Gandhi could clearly see that India’s linguistic communities were too deep-rooted to be erased into an undifferentiated Indian nation. Unlike Europe, which had a one-language-one-nation formula, India would be a multilingual nation. Indians would have hyphenated identities: Tamil Indians, Bengali Indians, Gujarati Indians etc. In Europe, each of these linguistic communities would have been a separate nation. Gandhi and the Congress party delinked nation from language.

Despite this larger understanding, Nehru was unsure about the idea of linguistic states after Independence. Partition violence had been horrific: Nehru became wary of social identities that might unleash mass passions. He wanted economic interests to form the bedrock of politics. Economically constructed politics would bring modernity; politics based on identities would set the nation back.

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