The Power of the Fast-
In politics, never write off anyone. A few months ago, I was invited by the Telangana Rashtra Samiti leader, and politician of the moment, K Chandrasekhar Rao, to his residence for an Andhra (oops, Telangana!) lunch. Tied up in other work, I frankly did not make the effort to keep the date. The fact that KCR's party just has two MPs, including the party 'supremo', 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 only left the Telugu Desam in 2001 to form the TRS because he was passed over for cabinet minister. His experiment with the UPA ended when he realized that YS Rajasekhar Reddy was slowly 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 legitimized the idea of a fast as an instrument of non-violent civil disobedience, designed mainly to further the clear strategic goal of political independence. During his lifetime, Gandhi fasted at least 17 times, the last time in August 1947 in an effort to stop Hindu-Muslim violence in the aftermath of Partition.
KCR is no Mahatma. Far from it. Nor is he a Potti Sreeramulu, who made the ultimate sacrifice when on a fast unto death that 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 fasting, in a sense, was an extension of his lifestyle based on austerity and personal courage.
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-Telagana sentiment is undeniable. But that sentiment has needed a symbol around which it can crystallize. 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 chief minister 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 a separate state now gather fresh momentum and will we see more 'fasts unto death' in the weeks ahead? An Ajit Singh in UP, Gorkhaland activists in West Bengal, even the ageing Vidarbha warriors may be tempted to test the resolve of the Indian 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 a 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 it's the state and the militant groups in Manipur who stand charged with violence and human right 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.
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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