In politics, never write off anyone. A few months ago, I was invited by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) leader, and politician of the moment, K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) to his residence for an Andhra (oops, Telangana!) lunch. Tied up with other work, I frankly did not make an effort to keep the date. The fact that KCR’s party just has two MPs, including KCR, may have influenced my decision. In Delhi’s power equations, two MPs make you almost irrelevant: lunch with KCR, honestly, seemed a waste of time. Today, KCR has proved the power of one, forcing the Centre to blink after going on a 11-day fast over his demand for a separate state of Telangana.
The demand is not new. Nor is the student agitation. In 1969, more than 300 students were killed while agitating for a separate state. Long before KCR, there was Dr M. Chenna Reddy, who eventually allowed his separatist urges to be dissolved by his ambition to be Andhra chief minister. KCR too, has been a political nomad, who left the Telugu Desam Party in 2001 to form the TRS because he did not get a Cabinet berth. His experiment with the UPA ended when he realised that Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy was decimating his party. Just days before the 2009 general elections, he resurfaced at an NDA rally, only to find himself being swept aside once again by the YSR tidal wave.
But what he couldn’t do through the ballot box, KCR has achieved, at least temporarily, through one of the oldest forms of political protests: ‘a fast unto death’. It was the Mahatma who legitimised the idea of a fast as an instrument of non-violent civil disobedience, designed mainly to further the strategic goal of political independence.
KCR is no Mahatma. Far from it. Nor is he a Potti Sreeramulu, whose fast-unto-death led to the formation of Andhra Pradesh in 1952. But KCR has shown that it is possible to use a Gandhian tool in a contemporary India that otherwise identifies with the Mahatma only through the cinematic glow of a Munnabhai. In Gandhi’s view, “the fasts must have a concrete and specific goal, not abstract aims” and “the fast must not ask people to do something they were incapable of, or to cause great hardship.” The ‘success’ of Gandhi’s fasts were based on his moral power, his ability to emotionally unite a nation with the spirit of sacrifice.
The ‘success’ of KCR’s fast, on the other hand, has much to do with the power of the visual image and the impact it can have in shaping public perceptions. That there has always been a popular pro-Telangana sentiment is undeniable. But that sentiment has needed a symbol around which it can crystallise. For the last ten days, Andhra Pradesh’s dozen-plus Telugu news channels — more than any other state in the country — have shown little else but an emaciated Rao in different hospitals. The image of a politician on saline drip with doctors offering hourly health updates was enough to build a larger-than-life aura around a leader who otherwise had dropped off the headlines.
Making KCR’s task easier was a weak and nervous Andhra government still coming to terms with YSR’s death. A strong state government would not have allowed the student agitation in Osmania University to get out of control and would have sent out a firm message of zero tolerance for any law and order disturbance. Unfortunately, K. Rosaiah is a CM who feels so obliged that the Congress high command has given him the post that he has forgotten his prime responsibility lies in governing the state.
So, will other movements for separate states now gather fresh momentum and will we see more ‘fasts unto death’ in the weeks ahead? An Ajit Singh in Uttar Pradesh, Gorkhaland activists in West Bengal, even the ageing Vidarbha warriors may be tempted to test the resolve of the State, or at least try and make political capital of the post-Telangana concession. No two situations are alike, but a State which capitulates once gives the impression that it can do so again in the future. So, the fast as made for television event may well be replicated in other parts of the country.
Ironically, the one individual who perhaps best exemplifies the Gandhian spirit of fasting isn’t on the national television map. Last month marked nine years since a frail, but remarkably gritty Manipuri woman, Irom Sharmila went on a fast unto death, demanding the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Locked up in a hospital room in Imphal, she has been force-fed by the government and re-arrested every time she is granted bail.
She is a staunch believer in ahimsa, and its the State and the militant groups in Manipur who stand charged with violence and human rights violations. Perhaps, Manipur isn’t mainstream enough, nor is there the kind of relentless news coverage that will make Irom Sharmila’s story force the Indian State to accommodate, or at least listen to her brave voice. Irom Sharmila is a true inheritor of the Gandhian legacy of peaceful protest; KCR is only an ambitious politician who is looking to revive his career.
Post script: I am looking forward to KCR inviting me for a Telangana lunch when he is next in the capital. Don’t want to make the same mistake again of underestimating a neta’s capacity for political resurrection.
The views expressed by the author are personal