14 DECEMBER 2018
Time after time
In Telangana, the TRS banked on its regional appeal to keep the Congress out again
In continuing with its politics of regional identity, the Telangana Rashtra Samithi won a second term in office in India’s newest State, pushing the national party, the Congress, to a distant second. TRS leader K. Chandrasekhara Rao, sworn in again as Chief Minister, had made a calculated gamble by advancing the election, which was due along with the Lok Sabha election. The motive was clear: he did not want to fight the Assembly polls alongside the Lok Sabha election, in which the Congress would have been a strong contender at the national level. The gamble paid off handsomely, and the TRS has added 25 seats to its 2014 tally of 63 with an increase of 12 percentage points in vote share. For the second time, the Congress failed to capitalise on its role in carving out Telangana from Andhra Pradesh, allowing the TRS a runaway victory. While it did not get any credit in Telangana for bringing the State into being, it had to take all the blame in Andhra Pradesh for the bifurcation, where it conceded space to its breakaway party, the YSR Congress Party. Mr. Rao is now firmly entrenched in government, and his son, K.T. Rama Rao, is a parallel power centre. In the last five years, far from being able to challenge the TRS politically, the Congress appears to have slipped in voter estimation.
Some of the Congress’s failures will have to be attributed to the national leadership, which hurriedly entered into an alliance with the Telugu Desam Party. Although the TDP does enjoy support in Hyderabad and surrounding areas, it is seen in the rest of Telangana as essentially a party of the neighbouring State of Andhra Pradesh. Congress president Rahul Gandhi may have been looking at the bigger picture when he welcomed the TDP as part of a broad Opposition alliance, but Telangana voters took a cynical view of the coming together of the two parties that were principal rivals just five years ago. Although the People’s Front of the Congress and the TDP drafted a common programme, and held a joint campaign, this was not enough to challenge the TRS, which moved to poll mode several months in advance. The result could also have implications for the Assembly election in Andhra Pradesh next year, as the TDP might be wary of being identified too closely with the Congress, which is still seen as having facilitated the bifurcation. The TRS, which talks of maintaining equidistance between the Congress and the BJP, is more likely to back the BJP than the Congress in the post-election scenario. And given that the TDP, until a few months ago, was an ally of the BJP, any which way the Congress looks at it the twin States of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh remain a difficult terrain.
Having survived a party challenge, the British PM should spell out London’s next steps
British Prime Minister Theresa May has survived a trust vote on her Conservative party stewardship. But there is little sign that the bitter infighting within the ruling party will abate. Nor is there any assurance that Parliament will back her government’s controversial Brexit deal with the European Union. The leadership challenge was suddenly triggered by a growing number of Tory rebels who felt emboldened by widespread opposition to the withdrawal agreement that has united Europhiles and Eurosceptics across parties. Their resistance gained momentum when Ms. May, deeply apprehensive about its approval by the Commons, decided to defer a vote on the deal. Following her victory in the party leadership battle, Ms. May hopes to secure more assurances from European leaders that Britain would not be permanently locked into a customs union with the EU. The customs union is the backstop arrangement meant to continue the open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, a lifeline of the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement. London has sought to sell the backstop as the best possible deal that could protect the U.K.’s territorial integrity. The EU insists the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened for negotiations. The Remain and Leave camps want legal assurances that the customs union would at best be temporary, given the curbs it would impose regarding trade agreements with third countries.
It is possible that Brussels will adopt a flexible stance, despite its protestations to the contrary, to avert a no-deal scenario on the expiry of the Article 50 deadline on March 29, 2019. Examples of how the dilemma posed by the Danish rejection of the 1991 EU treaty, or Ireland’s ‘No’ to the Lisbon treaty were legally overcome are being cited in relation to the present difficulty with the Irish backstop. Clearly, the EU’s main concern is not to stretch the basic idea that the benefits of membership are limited to insiders. But the U.K. will have to show some flexibility, of deferring to the democratic mandate of the referendum, while recognising the practical imperatives of ceasing a long partnership. In that respect, it would be wishful thinking, to paraphrase former Prime Minister John Major, to want to dispense with the Irish formula that has been written into the withdrawal agreement. Tory rebels should rise above their narrow differences in the national interest and back the final agreement presented to Parliament in January. Else, they risk an extension of the Brexit deadline and even possibly a second referendum on the EU membership issue. The meaning of the 2016 referendum verdict has evolved from implying that a no-deal withdrawal was better than a bad deal to an acceptance that a soft exit is the more realistic option. Now, opinions on a second referendum are being openly voiced. It’s time London decided what it really wants.