Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, February 15, 2010

WHEN IN doubt, set up a panel. Earlier this month, the UPA government constituted the BN Srikrishna panel on Telangana and last Friday, the Union home ministry announced its terms of reference. If the UPA government hoped these were enough to lull the Telangana agitationists back to sleep, its calculations have gone terribly awry. The TRS which is spearheading the agitation has already rejected the government’s initiatives and I suspect that the budget session of the Andhra Assembly which begins today will be stormy, even violent.

Governor EML Narasimhan is to make his maiden address to the assembly but, last heard, wasn't sure what he would say on behalf of the state government since the state cabinet headed by K. Rosaiah, which has to approve his speech, has nothing to say on the Centre’s moves. I cannot recall another occasion where the deliberations of the Union Cabinet or central government formed part of the Governor's address in a state which has a duly elected government. Normally, the gravity of the situation would have demanded that the Cabinet Committee on Political Affairs be called to discuss the matter, but the central political leadership, which has been feeling the heat from Telangana for about four months now, tossed the ball into P. Chidambaram’s court. The home minister’s firefighting skills are legendary but there is only so much that even wizards can do and I fear that what the mandarins have devised is not a clear road map to settle the issue but a formula for more political acrobatics.

The seven point terms of reference is a classic example of both legal and bureaucratic creativity that totally lacks conviction. The official statement vaguely defined the work of the panel headed by the former judge and four other wise members. Former home secretary V. K. Duggal, who is member secretary in the new panel, discussed with Chidambaram five crucial aspects concerning the title, headquarters, accommodation,administrative and financial allocations for the panel.

Two joint secretaries have been assigned to assist Duggal. They are faced with an uphill task. To start with, they have not been able to decide if the office of the panel will be in Mumbai where Srikrishna resides or Hyderabad, the city where the fire rages. There is some “ progress” though.

The panel has decided to take “ blanket permission” from Union Ministry of Personnel, to recruit 15 Research Fellows who will be the main link between the issues and the committee. The panel has also decided it will need a conference hall, 15 stenographers, 50 computer terminals, 10 landline phones with STD connections, fax machines, internet connections, chairs, tables and video and slide projector equipment.

If you think this a joke, consider the next one which is hilarious, to say the least. “ Clause ( 4) of the Terms of reference will identify the key issues that must be addressed while considering the matters mentioned in Clauses ( 1), ( 2) and ( 3) above.” It is bureaucratic gobbledygook at its best and betrays the confusion that reigns at the top levels in the Congress party over the creation of the new state. Congress insiders tell me that it was due to pressure mounted by its allies like the DMK and Trinamool Congress that the government didn’t take a final call. Top central leaders such as law minister Veerappa Moily, finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram are all in favour of the government using the Telangana issue to set the tone for the creation of smaller states in due course, but the Congress leadership in the states stands divided on the issue. In almost all big states, the Congress faces the real threat of losing power to regional rivals which could in turn pose a threat to the government at the Centre itself.

Justice Srikrishna and Chidambaram are among the sharpest legal brains in the country and it is the Congress’ hope that between them, they will work out something that will find cross party acceptance. My own hunch is that whatever they come up with will not be enough to get the Congress out of trouble.

The TRS has already rejected the panel and is expected to intensify the agitation in the coming days. This in turn will prompt Mayawati to renew her demand for the division of Uttar Pradesh to put the Congress on the defensive during assembly elections in 2012.

Ultimately, the government will have just one option left: set up a Second States Reorganisation Commission. It will buy some time as well as help the party make up its mind. Till then, they should milk the political situation for all it’s worth.

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