Betrayed in the City

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Telangana and the tragedy of Hyderabad
My family have long been Congress loyalists, from both sides. From my father’s side the connection goes back to the 1930s, when my grandmother joined the party. And from my mother’s side, it goes back to at least 1887, when her ancestor, Badruddin Tyabji,was elected the party’s President. I say this, not by way of disclosure, or boast, but to explain the prism through which I look at the happenings in Andhra Pradesh, and in Hyderabad.

I grew up in the certainties of Jawaharlal Nehru’s and then Indira Gandhi’s India. Even as children, I remember, we were proud of our nationalism, of our country’s policies of self-reliance and socialism. I remember, for example, being taken by my grandmother—a minister in the Andhra Pradesh government— and shown the great newly constructed Nagarjuna- sagar dam, and told about the many benefits its waters would bring to the people. I remember her Congress party colleagues, patrician figures dressed in starched white dhotis, the colour of their attire seeming to radiate the values and virtues they stood for. I remember the time, for example, when a relative had come to my grandmother to use her political influence to get a small favour done; he was given a tongue-lashing for his presumption and shown the door. For many years after, whenever my grandmother saw that relative, she would cut him dead. Honesty had not only to be done, it had to be seen to be done.

That was the kind of place our India was, and Andhra Pradesh seemed to be at the forefront of it. It was one of the staunchest bastions of the Congress party, headed by chief minsters like Brahmananda Reddy and Sanjeeva Reddy (later to become President of India), both icons of rectitude and broad-mindedness, we knew, like the other leaders of that idealistic nation- building generation. If Andhra Pradesh was a bastion of the Congress party, Hyderabad was, almost by corollary, a bastion of the public sector, with pioneering undertakings like HMT and IDPL, set up to produce indigenously-made machine tools and pharmaceuticals for the nation. One of our heroes, in fact, was an HMT engineer who used to set up turnkey projects in Africa and the Middle East, and regaled us with stories about how HMT’s unique ‘barefoot technology’ ran rings around American engineering giants, whose fancy engineers were completely clueless working in Third World environments. Our admiration was typical of the proud, prickly nationalism of those Indira Gandhi times.

When the Telangana movement first began in 1968, therefore, we, as teenagers, saw it as basically an act of betrayal—a threat to the national edifice, with its construct of linguistic states, so carefully created by Nehruvian policy- makers to meld a unity out of India’s diversities. Parochial interests, whatever they were, had necessarily to be subjugated to the larger national interests. We trusted the wisdom and integrity of our political class to safely steer those national interests. And we were prepared to lead the austere lives that were dictated by the socialist system they had charted out for us. That was the compact the Congress government had with us, the people. Or at least some of the people: those classmates of ours who, for example, finished their IIT degrees and went off to the US were seen as defectors, letting down the side in some way. It was, in hindsight, an impossibly idealistic time.

But in the 1970s, the decline began—slowly at first, and then with increasing rapidity. The old guard of Congress leaders, with their freedom-fighting, nation-building vision were dying out, and being replaced by a new breed of petty political operators whose vision was no wider than their own self-interest. The new Chief Minister was a man whom my grandmother had known from the old days to be a rogue. She herself had by now been ousted from her constituency in the Old City, where she and her mother had been educationists and social reformers since the 1920s. The seat had now been captured by the nascent Majlis-e- Ittehadul Muslimeen, which, people whispered, was supported by the Congress party itself, as a strategic long-term partner.

I grew up, left Hyderabad and went to Mumbai to make a career for myself; I would not return till the late 1990s. And the Hyderabad that I came back to was a city I could not recognise.

In the intervening years, of course, the Congress party had been displaced by the Telugu Desam Party. The turning point had been the time Rajiv Gandhi had visited Hyderabad, and the Chief Minister, a lickspittle Congressman had, in an abject demonstration of fealty, rushed onto the airport runway at the head of a crowd, bearing garlands for his Prime Minister’s son. Rajiv, as a professional airline pilot, was aghast at this flouting of airport safety rules and had blasted the Chief Minister in public.

This incident was shrewdly picked up by a coterie from the Kamma caste, who had apparently long resented the domination of the Reddy caste over the Congress party and, therefore, Andhra politics. They whipped this incident up into a supposed ‘insult to Telugu pride’ by the Prime Minister’s son, and created the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), with NT Rama Rao, a charismatic old film star who had specialised in mythological roles, at its head. It was a stroke of political genius, and it routed the Congress party totally. But, insidiously, it also brought caste politics to the forefront in Andhra Pradesh. And, galling to many in Hyderabad, the city was soon engulfed by a brash coastal Andhra culture, actively sponsored by the new Telugu Desam government. Local Telugu speakers began to feel marginalised, complaining about a variety of slights and disadvantages, ranging from the fact that the Telugu language that was now spoken in the city was a dialect they could barely understand, to the fact that Telugu movies depicted Telangana-ites as clowns or villains, and coastal Andhraites as the inevitable heroes.

By 1998, when I returned to Hyderabad, Chandrababu Naidu had wrested control of the TDP, and was in the process of turning the city into a global infotech hub to rival Bangalore. In an ingenious touch of branding, he named the new infotech district Cyberabad, a name that immediately grabbed everybody’s imagination, creating a perception for the city’s software industry that was even greater than the reality. I had the feeling of being in exactly the right place at the right time. Thanks to Naidu’s mixture of aggressively business-friendly policies and media savvy, Hyderabad was seeing an unprecedented economic boom. A city, till now known mainly for its historical monuments and biryani, was suddenly splashed across the pages of business magazines Businessweek and Fortune.

But there was a dark side to this story: the success was powered largely by a thrust of unabashed crony capitalism. Or perhaps one should say ‘caste capitalism’, for every businessman seemed to have the backing of a political godfather from his own caste—or, better still, his own family. As the saying went, the new business model was one brother runs the business, the second brother is in the ruling party, and if there’s a third brother, he’s in the opposition by way of insurance.

Today, as one looks back at what has happened in Andhra Pradesh, and in Hyderabad, one is filled with dismay. In recent years, the state and the city seem to have gone from bad to worse, with a series of scams and political manipulations, fused together by the common glue of greed. Along with that, of course, there has been the slow-burning Telangana agitation. When one examines the facts about Telangana dispassionately, one realises that there is, indeed, a persuasive case for creating a separate state for the people of the region. But the way things have been happening, one can’t help getting the sense that what we’ve been seeing is not so much a struggle for Telangana as a tussle over who gets their hands on the city of Hyderabad. Once Chandrababu Naidu had demonstrated how much wealth there was to be derived from the city, all the players seem to have woken up to the idea of how to get a chunk of that for themselves.

Now, as elections draw close, the question is who does one vote for? The Congress party I once knew, respected, and voted for every time, has evidently self-destructed. The other parties, I am not sure are worth voting for. The only alternative I can think of is the new Loksatta party, founded by Dr Jayaprakash Narayan, which seems, coincidentally, to uphold many of the visionary values that the Congress once stood for: honesty, governance, democracy, decency. But how it will be able to stand up to the forces of darkness remains to be seen.

So where do we go from here? With the creation of Telangana, the era of linguistic states—created in the fragile 1950s to forge a unity out of India’s diversity—is officially over. It ended in the messiest possible way. But looking at things in a more positive light, the time for large language-based states has passed. India has moved on, and what we need now, arguably, is many more states, designed for more effective governance—more compact, closer to the people, more responsive to their needs.

But the danger, of course, is that such states could so easily become fiefdoms, hijacked by groups with the narrowest and basest of interests. We could well end up in a scenario not unlike the end of the Mughal empire, when, in the political vacuum that followed, any petty warlord who could put together a hundred horsemen rode out and carved out a kingdom for himself. What we really need, therefore, is a coherent national policy to make sure that future states are the result of carefully coordinated economic, political and administrative logic, not merely political blackmail or public frenzy. For years, people have talked of a Second States Reorganisation Commission to relook at the work done by its predecessor in the 1950s and take it forward to meet the needs of our times. Clearly, one of the very highest priorities of the next Government in Delhi—whichever it may be—is to appoint such a commission.

Meanwhile, the Hyderabad that I knew and loved has been vulgarised beyond recognition. The cosmopolitan and graceful city I knew as a teenager has been replaced by a dystopia of greed, corruption, vulgarity and lack of social conscience—to the point that a recent book written by journalist friend of mine presents Andhra Pradesh as a metaphor for what is rotten in Indian society today. It shamed me to read that, just as it shamed me to see a newsmagazine cover story, not long ago, labelling Hyderabad a ‘Scam City’.

Let me end with an anecdote that seems to indicate, in some small way, what has been wrong with our city and state. Some time ago, I was invited to the house of a small-time businessman for dinner. The most expensive single-malt whiskies and cognacs were being poured, quite literally, like water. When I innocently asked my host where he obtained his stocks from, he said very casually that he and a ‘friend’ made a trip to Dubai every few weeks, and picked up duty free cases on the way back. When I foolishly persisted about ‘Duty Free’ quotas and so forth, he smiled patiently and informed me that his ‘friend’ was a minister. It was only later, when I thought back on that conversation, that I realised the many different layers of questions that it raised—questions that said so much about what was going on in the system, at its most basic, most mundane level, questions that were perhaps prudent not to ask.

But now, of course, we have the new state of Telangana. It has been a long time in the coming. I look forward to its future with hope. But that hope, I must confess, is mixed with a realistic measure of cynicism.

The writer is an advertising professional and trend-watcher