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What Telangana Means for Indian Federalism

Arun Sagar
February 24, 2014

Barring a last minute political turnaround, Telangana will become India’s 29th state in early 2014, which may bring to an end a story whose beginnings had kick-started the first phase of state reorganization in independent India. Telangana will be carved out of the state of Andhra Pradesh, which had been created in 1953 by combining the Telegu-speaking areas of the erstwhile states of Hyderabad and Madras; Telangana corresponds to the area formerly in Hyderabad State. The creation of Andhra Pradesh was at the origin of movements for the formation of other states on linguistic grounds, which led to a large-scale reorganization in 1956.

The current evolution of Andhra Pradesh has once again been influential. In the last couple of years, the growth and eventual success of the demand for Telangana has revived the movements for statehood in many different parts of the country, arising in each case in a specific historical context. The most prominent of these are the movements for Bodoland, Gorkhaland, and Vidarbha, but there are several other demands: Koshal, Harit Pradesh, Bundelkhand, Purvanchal, Vindhya Pradesh, Kuki, Tulu Nadu, and the list goes on. However, despite the visibility of some of these movements, their overall significance for Centre-State relations in India has not been the subject of much attention.

While at first glance the multiplicity of such demands – and indeed their success in Telangana and possible success elsewhere – appears to represent a further “federalization” or “decentralization” of the Indian polity, it in fact fits into the underlying narrative of centralization in India. Counter-intuitively, the next “level” of political fragmentation after the initial empowerment of regional politics (following decades of single-party dominance) tends to strengthen the Gesamtstaat of the Indian Union rather than weaken it. There are several reasons for this.

First, the possibility of the “dismemberment” of a state threatens the very existence of its political identity, simply because this identity is co-extensive with its territory. The Central government’s power to unilaterally redefine the boundaries of a state and create new ones is not found in most other federal countries. The clearest example of a federation where the federal authority has consistently created new sub-national units is that of Nigeria (from three states to thirty-six); however, much of this reorganization took place under extra-constitutional military dictatorships. In India, Article 3 of the Constitution itself allows Parliament to alter the boundaries of a state or create new states by a simple law. There is a procedure under which the President seeks the opinion of the State Legislative Assembly on any such proposed law, but the Assembly’s recommendations are not binding. At this time, the Andhra Pradesh Legislative Assembly is in the midst of an extremely fractious debate on the draft bill to create Telangana, while the Central Government’s spokespersons have expressed the view that the Assembly’s response will not, in any case, prevent the bill being tabled in Parliament.

Second, and less obvious, the movement toward general economic, cultural, and ethnic criteria for state formation, as opposed to purely linguistic criteria, represents an overall weakening of state political power, not just in the crisis of territorial integrity in each specific case but in the increasingly direct influence of infra-state power centres. Centralization due to a political homogeneity between the centre and the states may be termed a top-down centralization; the same political party being in power at both levels of government is the classic example. But the era of coalition politics is now seeing a different kind of centralization, one where national politicians are more likely to pay attention to local demands, “bypassing” the state level. The demands for new states, even when unsuccessful, gnaw away at the influence of political actors at the state level by encouraging local politics and promoting regional elites against the state-level elite; this may be seen as a “bottom-up” form of political pressure. Even political groups previously acting nominally in state interests are obliged to further the interests of regional groups. Linguistic identity rarely engenders political movements as powerful as those arising from a sense of ethnic/historical identity and a shared perception of economic backwardness and/or discrimination. Politicians are always bound to represent their constituencies, but the impact of this on state-level politics becomes magnified when the constituencies represented do not seek state-level action in their favor, but ask rather for a division or dismemberment of the state itself.

It is important to note that the demands for new states are not associated with demands for secession from the Indian Union. There are and have been several secessionist movements and insurrections in various parts of the country. These movements threaten the territorial integrity of the Union itself. It is not surprising that the Centre has reacted to them strongly, often with force. The movements for statehood, on the other hand, only threaten the state level of the federation. Apart from the question of influence and political focus, statehood demands can push the process of sub-state devolution, distributing power from the state government to other administrative units. A prime example is the creation of a semi-autonomous administrative entity in the Gorkhaland region.

Finally, in terms of centre-state relations, the binary nature of federalism means that weakened states create a stronger centre. If demands for the creation of new states succeed, the reduced size of a state has a direct impact on political equations at the centre-state level, for example, in terms of representation in Parliament; the composition of both the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha involves the attribution of seats to the states and their constituencies in proportion to their population. Smaller states get fewer seats, reducing the influence of state-level politicians. On the other hand, the possibility of new constituencies with direct Parliamentary representation is itself an incentive for local leaders to press demands for statehood.

Taken together, these dynamics create an accumulation of central power that, unlike the top-down version, draws energy from a multiplicity of local, unconnected processes in many places throughout the country. The actual success of each individual demand for statehood is not a necessary condition for its subtle weakening of the state level of politics. The possibility of the creation of new states and the strength of regional demands can, in themselves, be seen as contributing to a bottom-up centralization in the federal system. The likely success of the Telangana movement has revitalized these local energies, and could thus signal a new phase of this process.

Arun Sagar is an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Multilevel Federalism, New Delhi.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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