On Compulsory Wait

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He’s an NDA ally yet Chandrababu Naidu’s pleas for special status for his state has met with indifference in Delhi. With assembly elections some time away, Naidu has to bide his time.BY RAMAKRISHNA UPADHYA

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Nara Chandrababu Naidu is spitting fire these days. Ever since he assumed charge for the second time as the chief minister of a truncated Andhra Pradesh in June, 2014, he has been pleading, urging, demanding and badgering the Narendra Modi government at the Centre to accord “Special Category Status” (SCS) to his state, but to no avail.

Naidu has tried to use every pressure tactic in his armoury. State-sponsored protests have been held throughout Andhra demanding ‘justice.’ Though part of the NDA government, his MPs have stormed the well of the House, demonstrated before the freedom statue in Delhi, met Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister Modi in delegations demanding that promises made at the time of bifurcation of the state be met and without any further delay.

Speaking during the Independence Day celebrations at the Neelam Sajeeva Reddy maidan in Anantpur, Naidu thundered: “The bifurcation was done in the most unscientific and illogical manner. We were thrown out with no funds and with huge debts. We were left with no capital (city) and no resources. “Though promises were made in the Act (the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act) and the special category status was promised on the floor of Parliament, nothing has been done in the last two years. Even a separate railway zone is yet to materialise. No funds have been sanctioned for Polavaram irrigation scheme, though it has been declared a national project,” he said, warning that, “we will not compromise on what is due to us.”

Naidu has every reason to be angry and frustrated. After being the longest serving chief minister (eight years and eight months) of the united Andhra, he lost power in 2004. He spent the next one decade as Leader of the Opposition, and in the changed political scenario, had little hope of returning to power.

But, the scalding Telangana agitation forced the then UPA government to agree to split the state into two, yielding to the pressure exerted by the Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) headed by Chandrashekar Rao. In the bifurcation process, the capital city of Hyderabad went to Telangana, while Andhra was told to build a new capital in 10 years.

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the then prime minister Manmohan Singh held out an assurance that the Seemandhra (a term used to refer to coastal Andhra and Rayalaseema districts) region would be given SCS for five years. But it was only a verbal assurance. Ironically, BJP leader Venkaiah Naidu, then sitting in the opposition and now a minister in the Modi government, wanted SCS to be stretched to 10 years!

As the Lok Sabha elections are still about three years away, the BJP has nothing much at stake in either Andhra Pradesh or Telangana. Also, it has been hinting at playing TDP against TRS and YSR Congress, visibly going soft on CBI cases against Jaganmohan Reddy

In the Reorganisation Bill, which eventually became law, Central assistance was assured to develop a new capital for Andhra Pradesh, a separate High Court, ports and other infrastructure. It was also mentioned that the Centre would sponsor the Polavaram Irrigation Project, as Krishna river projects would only benefit Telangana, but there was no mention of SCS status.

In the simultaneous elections to the two assemblies and the Lok Sabha that followed, everybody knew that TRS would sweep Telangana. In Andhra Pradesh, it was a toss-up between YSR Congress and the Congress on the one hand and the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) on the other. As Narendra Modi was riding a popularity wave across the country and Naidu was unsure of his own party’s readiness for the polls, he decided to go with the BJP and reaped handsome dividends. TDP not only won 16 out of 25 Lok Sabha seats to BJP’s two, it was also able to form the government on its own at the state level. The YSR Congress, for all its pre-election bluster, was a distant second and won only seven Lok Saba seats.

Chandrashekhar Rao’s TRS assumed power in Telangana and also won 11 out of 17 Lok Sabha seats, making it a formidable regional force. The Congress, for all its Machiavellian plans in dividing the state, was caught between two stools and ended up with a mere two Lok Sabha seats.

Special Category Status is a mantra chanted by Bihar and Odisha as well, but in recent times, the Centre has been reluctant to give such handouts as it is difficult to please everyone. It was the Fifth Finance Commission that introduced SCS in 1969 giving Jammu & Kashmir, Assam and Nagaland additional Central assistance and tax concessions.

The National Development Council, a body of all the states, laid down five broad guidelines for granting SCS status: hilly and difficult terrain; low population density or sizeable share of tribal population; strategic location along the border with neighbouring countries; economic and infrastructural backwardness; and non-viable nature of state finances. In later stages, eight more states were added to the list: Arunachal Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, Tripura and Uttarakhand.

In its heydays, SCSs were being allotted 30 per cent of Central assistance and the remaining 70 per cent being distributed among the other states based on their population, per capita income and fiscal performance. SCSs enjoyed concessions in customs and excise duties and income tax rates. In addition, the Planning Commission could allot more funds to these states for executing Centrally-sponsored schemes or special projects, if any.

But the question of ‘backwardness’ has always been a contentious issue, and some states have sought region-specific grants by referring to their economic and social backwardness. After the Modi government came to power, it decided to wind up the Planning Commission and replace it with the NITI Aayog, giving the states greater say in the selection of projects and fund allocation process.

During a recent debate in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley tried to explain why it was difficult to meet Andhra’s SCS demand: “Now, 42 per cent of the central revenue goes to the states. The rest 58 per cent has to take care of defence, salaries of 40 lakh central government employees, repayment of loans etc...We also have to support Central schemes. This year, our deficit is 3.9 per cent and we need to keep it under control.”

He told the Andhra MPs that the Centre was ready to “handhold” Andhra Pradesh until the state became economically stable. One may ask the question: How is it that the Centre is able to treat Chandrababu Naidu with such “disdain” and not yield to his demand?

As the Lok Sabha elections are still about three years away, the BJP has nothing much at stake in either Andhra Pradesh or Telangana. Also, it has been hinting at playing TDP against TRS and YSR Congress, visibly going soft on CBI cases against Jaganmohan Reddy.

Naidu has caught the drift of the BJP’s thinking and wants to play his cards carefully, balancing aggression with caution. How long his patience will last remains to be seen.

Summary

  • Andhra CM Chandrababu Naidu’s demands for special category status for his state has run up against the Delhi brick wall
  • The Centre seems uninterested even though Naidu is part of the NDA, and has demonstrated his loyalty
  • The Centre’s indifference probably stems from the fact that the next round of state elections is three years away
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