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A politician fasts to redraw India's map


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POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

HYDERABAD, India » Less than two weeks ago, K. Chandrasekhar Rao was a marginalized politician whose principles were questioned even by some of his supporters. His regional party was floundering, and his rivals snickered over his political comeuppance. Then, staring at political oblivion, he reached out for a most unlikely source of inspiration: Gandhi.

For the past 10 days, Rao waged a hunger strike that unexpectedly mutated into a national melodrama. He swore to starve if India did not reconfigure its political map by carving out a new state anchored by this city, a major technology hub and host to multinationals like Dell and Motorola. The vast size of the current state, Andhra Pradesh, wrongly deprived local people, a minority known as the Telangana, of their share of prosperity, he contended.

His so-called fast-unto-death set off demonstrations on college campuses and plunged Hyderabad into a political crisis. Several universities were shut down, students were jailed and thousands of police and paramilitary officers arrived after a two-day general strike effectively paralyzed the city of 4 million people.

With television trucks posted on a death watch outside Rao's hospital room, the national government, led by the Congress Party, finally blinked. Late Wednesday night, Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram announced that the “;process of formation of the state of Telangana would be initiated.”;

Rao ended his fast with a glass of juice, and his supporters converted a planned protest rally on Thursday into a victory celebration.

“;We are happy,”; said Uppu Sudhaker, a Telangana supporter. “;All these years, people from other regions have slighted us. Our areas were not properly developed. All our resources were misused. The jobs went to outsiders.”;

Even as many legislative hurdles must be navigated to create a new Telangana state, the drama underscores that while India represents an ancient civilization, it is a relatively young democracy whose internal political shape is likely to keep evolving.

One of India's perennial challenges is to placate and unify its many different peoples under a federalist political structure, a task that has meant that political boundaries are periodically the focus of agitation by identity-based movements centered on religion, caste, region and ethnicity.

From the outset of an independent India in 1947, language provided the rationale for political boundaries, as large states were carved from different linguistic regions. But as India has evolved into the world's second most populous country, with 1.2 billion people, the political map also became focused on improving government efficiency, reducing corruption and ensuring an equitable allocation of resources.

Some analysts note that smaller states have proved more effective, as far as good government, yet India still has several states larger than most countries. Uttar Pradesh, home to 8 percent of the world's poorest people, has more than 160 million people.

Three new states were created in 2000, raising the national total to 28 states and seven territories administered by the central government, but in recent years the Congress Party has pledged to convene a special commission to examine national political borders, a pledge that, as yet, remains unfulfilled.

Beyond Telangana, India has a handful of other localized statehood movements, notably in the Gurkha region of the state of West Bengal, and it remains unclear whether these movements will regain momentum.

“;As a nation, we are young,”; said Ramachandra Guha, a historian who has written about India's federalist evolution. “;We are still grappling with how to organize our system of government.”;