Sometimes political leaders do the right thing for the wrong reasons. Take the decision of India's Congress-led United Progressive Alliance to carve a new state of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh, with Hyderabad as its capital.
The Congress did this for a crassly self-serving reason: to avert an electoral rout in Andhra Pradesh, where it won 33 of 42 Lok Sabha seats in 2009. Its prospect was gloomy in Telangana -- where it earlier joined hands with the Telanagana Rashtra Samiti -- and in Coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema, the remaining regions, often called Seemandhra, where public sentiment disfavours Telanagana.
In Seemandhra, the anti-Telangana YSR Congress led by Jaganmohan Reddy is a formidable force. In Telangana, the Congress lost support by dillydallying on statehood after Home Minister P. Chidambaram announced it in 2009.
After the recent announcement, the Congress stands to gain. It can at minimum win seats in Coastal Andhra. Optimistically, it might reach accommodation with Mr. Reddy by cynically manipulating the corruption charges he faces.
Second, with the TRS, it can win most of Telangana's 17 Lok Sabha seats. And third, it can marginalise the Bharatiya Janata Party in Telangana.
If the Congress is devious, the BJP too has opportunistic double standards. It's generally unitarist, but supports smaller states when expedient -- e.g. Uttarakhand, and Vidarbha (Maharashtra), where it's dependent on the Shiv Sena, which virulently opposes Vidarbha's statehood.
The case for Telangana's statehood is unassailable. Before Independence, Telangana belonged to the Nizam's Hyderabad state, Seemandhra to the British-ruled Madras Presidency. They had different of administrative and education systems, with Urdu and English as the official languages.
Seemandhra people with knowledge of English had a head-start in securing government jobs. Telangana with two-fifths of Andhra's population only accounts for one-fifth of government employees, and under one-twentieth of departmental heads.
The British invested in irrigation in the Coastal region, creating a prosperous landowning class. Telangana saw nothing comparable and remained poor -- despite being the main source of Coastal Andhra's irrigation.
Telangana accounts for over two-thirds of the catchment areas of Rivers Krishna and Godavari. But it gets only 18% of the state's irrigation benefits, while Coastal Andhra corners 74%. This is also true of forests and mineral deposits.
Coastal Andhra is more industrialised, and much richer, than the other two regions. It's also Andhra's rice bowl. Telangana has very little industry, barring in Hyderabad. Most of its agriculture is rain-fed, with low yields. Largely arid or semiarid Rayalaseema is Andhra's most backward region.
Telangana sharply differs from Seemandhra in culture, ethnic-religious composition and food habits. The Telangana people don't speak the Sanskritised Telugu prevalent in Seemandhra; their language is strongly influenced by Urdu, Marathi and Kannada.
Telangana has a distinct political history going back to the great agrarian revolt of the 1940s under Communist leadership, which threw up the Telangana state demand.
The Telangana people believe they are victims of “cultural subjugation.” They're looked down upon in Seemandhra, and often mocked in mainstream TV serials. Right or wrong, perceptions matter.
Another source of Telangana's discontent in its economic domination by aggressive entrepreneurs from Coastal Andhra. They control much of its industry and trade, and prime property vacated by the Muslim elite which fled Hyderabad for Pakistan and the West.
These entrepreneurs have used political influence -- especially since liberalisation began in 1991 -- to bag lucrative national-level infrastructure construction contracts. They own India's flashy new airports, pharmaceutical factories, media and film companies, and a host of other firms.
They have made heavy investments in and around Hyderabad, and are loath to lose control over that city. That's primarily why they oppose Telangana statehood.
To placate them, the UPA promises to retain Hyderabad as the capital of both Telangana and Seemandhra for 10 years. Logically, Hyderabad should be Telangana's capital. It culturally belongs to it and lies at its centre. Unlike, say, Chandigarh, shared between Punjab and Haryana, Hyderabad is not at the boundary of two states.
The 10-year interval will merely prolong an inevitable divorce. Worse, it would open the dangerous possibility that Coastal businessmen with enormous money power will exploit discontent and foment violence to sabotage Hyderabad's separation.
A more honest way out would be to offer Seemandhra a package which safeguards its businessmen's legitimate investments in Hyderabad, and funds the construction of a new capital and other institutions -- such that Hyderabad's separation occurs rapidly through a consensual, transparent, impeccably clean, and peaceful process.
The UPA must stop playing partisan, selective politics around statehood. It must acknowledge that many regions/sub-regions in India have well-founded aspirations to separate statehood regardless of language. India must move beyond linguistic states towards typically better-governed smaller units.
That would be best done through a second States Reorganisation Commission (SRC), which takes a holistic view of various dimensions of statehood and evolves balanced criteria.
Among these are: representation for ethnic-linguistic and cultural minorities; a state's viability as a unit conducive to social development, especially welfare of underprivileged sub-regions and people; and equitable division of infrastructure, civil servants, judicial institutions, etc.
Representation is crucial. In a vast country like India, groups considered large enough worldwide to become nations go unrepresented in the legislature, executive or judiciary. For instance, nomadic tribes form four percent of India's population, or 50 million people -- bigger than all but four Western European countries. But they're represented by just one or two lawmakers -- as are ethnic-cultural minorities in many states.
Policymakers must not fear an India of 40, even 60 states, each with 20-30 million people. Today's nation-states have an average of 35 million people -- less than 16 million, if the world's 10 most-populous countries are excluded. Nations with sub-million populations are perfectly viable.
India's fear of small states derives from memories of Partition. Paranoia about “too many” states has deterred India even from creating different time-zones which can save daylight.
It's time to shed such fears and bite the SRC bullet. India won't crumble under a few more Telanganas, Vidarbhas or Gorkhalands.
The writer is an eminent Indian columnist. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org