The Telangana bypolls and the opposition's united voice on issues like prices should have come as a wake up call for the Congress. Once the Teflon effect begins to wear off -- and this is beginning to happen -- the party will be on a slippery slope, says Neerja Chowdhury.
That a young man in Telangana, Ishant Reddy, should immolate himself by way of thanksgiving to the gods for the victory of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi, spearheading the movement for the creation of a separate state, showed how deeply the sentiment runs in the region today.
The outcome of the 12 Telangana assembly bypolls was not unexpected, except for the huge margins with which the TRS members won. It was another sign that the movement for a separate state has not abated. It would be foolish to dismiss the results as just a dozen assembly polls in a large state.
Even more damaging than the TRS victory for the Congress was the defeat of the state party president, who saw himself as a chief ministerial possible, and that too at the hands of the Bharatiya Janata Party which had been on the wane in the state. This is a victory which could give a fillip to the BJP in the region, the saffron party having favoured the creation of a separate state. Telangana is also a region where the RSS has been active over the years.
If the Congress party concedes a separate Telangana in the months to come, the TRS will merge its identity in the Congress -- as it had promised to do following the home minister's December 9 announcement. Unlike other parties, the TRS has had only a one point agenda.
The Telangana protagonists argue that if the Centre does go ahead with the formation of a separate state, the Congress would remain in a win-win situation in both parts of Andhra Pradesh, at least for the time being. Having conceded Telangana, the Congress is bound to win the next election there. What however happens in the rest of Andhra Pradesh would remain an open question, because of the sharp polarisation that would ensue.
The Congress has to also contend with the Y S Jaganmohan Reddy factor in the rest of 'Andhra', where he has a following. The son of the late YS Rajasekhar Reddy has been drawing large crowds during his recent yatra, and has already hinted at the possibility of floating a new party. If that happens, he will without doubt damage the Congress. The extent to which Chiranjeevi, with his support among the Kapu community -- the film star turned politician may soon join the Congress -- will be a mitigating factor remains to be seen.
Though the Srikrishna Commission, looking into the viability of the Telangana demand, has time till December 31 to give its report and this may enable the Congress to buy some more time, either way the genie of small states is waiting to be uncorked in the new year. This could give an impetus to smaller regional parties, like the TRS. Depending on how the situation is handled, it could alter existing political parameters in more than one state, including Uttar Pradesh. The demand for Vidarbha and Harit Pradesh could gather momentum. Mayawati has already come out in support of breaking UP into smaller states.
Today, Andhra Pradesh is the only big state being ruled by the Congress. And whichever way politics is played out in the coming months, Andhra Pradesh, united or divided, is unlikely to play the kind of stellar role it did to install a Congress-led government in Delhi. The state was responsible, quite decisively, for the party's victory, both in 2004 and 2009.
The other worrying development for the Congress is the way the opposition parties, despite their differences, have begun to join hands on issues. They, the Left and the BJP included, have calibrated their responses on rising prices, an issue which will continue to unite the opposition, in one form or another, because they know the extent to which the problem -- and this is a secular issue -- is agitating large sections of the people.
Opposition unity was implicit in the UPA's 2009 victory, as these parties faced the possibility of a resurgent Congress, which would naturally pose a threat to their own identity -- be it the BJP in the Hindi heartland or in Karnataka, or the Left Front in West Bengal and Kerala, or Lalu Yadav in Bihar or Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in UP. These parties have grown at the expense of the Congress over the years. The Congress revival has to be contingent on their decline. It is not unnatural for them to view the Congress as a common threat.
Undoubtedly, two factors have made opposition unity that much more difficult today than in the past. The first is the emergence of a more 'communal' face of the BJP after the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, and the Gujarat riots of 2002. That is why the Congress will be able to use the 'Amit Shah' matter and the 'Hindu terror' issue, involving some RSS figures, to drive a wedge in the opposition ranks.
The second factor is the cynical use of the Central Bureau of Investigation over the years, particularly since 1996, by successive governments, to keep a sword hanging over the heads of those opposed to them to make them fall in line, or to let them off the hook.
Look at the ease with which Mulayam Singh, Lalu Yadav and even Mayawati came to the Congress' rescue over the passage of the finance bill in the Budget session of Parliament. Congress managers openly talk about the regional chieftains using every new situation to bargain for the dilution of cases against them.
The threat to Congress comes not from the creation of a united opposition party, as in 1977, or a front which could take it on, as in the late eighties. The Left parties -- and indeed the regional parties banking on Muslim support like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal -- will find it very difficult to forge a common platform with the BJP today. The 1989 model -- when both the Left and BJP had supported a centrist, V P Singh-headed Janata Dal from outside, ousting the Rajiv Gandhi government despite its 415 seats in 1984 -- is difficult to imagine, even if the Left is further weakened with defeats in West Bengal and Kerala next year and both are on the cards.
At the end of the day, the Left parties -- as also some of the regional outfits -- may prefer to go back, not to the 1989 scenario, but to the one that prevailed in 1996, or in 2004, when they were happy to do business with a considerably weakened Congress, which is the best scenario they could ask for, for it allowed them to call the shots.
The threat comes more from the generation of a climate against the Congress, and the loss of its sheen. This would naturally affect its prospects in the poll going states in the coming months. The Telangana bypolls and the opposition's united voice on issues like prices should have come as a wake up call for the Congress. Once the Teflon effect begins to wear off -- and this is beginning to happen -- the party will be on a slippery slope.
The rapacious loot under the guise of the Commonwealth Games, the Kashmir situation spinning out of control and the continuing challenge posed by the Maoists are straws to indicate which way the wind is blowing.