On March 27, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman dropped a bombshell for Andhra Pradesh when, in Puducherry, she promised special status to the Union Territory while releasing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s election manifesto. This act of Nirmala Sitharaman, hopefully not an ‘oversight’, once again raised tempers in AP. The demand for special status to Andhra Pradesh has once again staged a comeback, particularly for the Tirupati Lok Sabha segment, where a bypoll is coming up.
The demand for special status for Andhra is as old as the demand for the bifurcation of the earlier, united state. The special category status to AP had been promised by former PM Manmohan Singh on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on February 20, 2014, at the time of passage of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill, 2014, which carved out Telangana from the combined Andhra Pradesh. It was supported by the then main opposition party, the BJP.
2014 general election promise
During the 2014 general election, the then PM candidate Narendra Modi promised at a public meeting in Tirupati that if the NDA were voted to power, special category status would be granted to AP. From the dais, he complimented Venkaiah Naidu, who was translating his speech from Hindi to Telugu for extracting the special category status demand from the then UPA government on the floor of Parliament.
But when the NDA came to power at the Centre and its then alliance partner, the TDP under the leadership of Chandrababu Naidu in AP, the special category status was put on the backburner. The TDP, which was part of the NDA government, initially accepted the special financial package for the state in lieu of the special category status. But the YSRCP took it up as a major political issue and the TDP, too, began demanding the same, severing its alliance with the BJP in April 2018.
The demand for special status for Andhra Pradesh has been raised by all major political parties in the state since the bifurcation of combined Andhra Pradesh in 2014 and has been rejected by the NDA on several occasions. In the recently concluded Parliament session, the Centre gave a written reply to a question tabled stating that the question of according special category status to AP did not arise. Though AP CM YS Jaganmohan Reddy wrote several letters to the PM requesting him to consider the demand for special status, there was no response from PM Modi or his government. For all practical purposes, the issue was a closed chapter, until Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement in Puducherry.
Special status for Puducherry
The BJP said it would accord ‘Special Union Territory’ status to Puducherry to increase the devolution of funds from 25 per cent to 40 per cent, as was done in the case of Jammu and Kashmir, to ensure development.
For the TDP, which is fighting a battle for its political survival, Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement came handy and it has now made it into a major election issue for the ongoing Tirupati Lok Sabha by poll campaign. The BJP and the YSRCP are finding it difficult to counter the TD campaign.
This has made it more difficult for the BJP candidate and former senior IAS officer from Karnataka, K Ratna Prabha, to counter the campaign. Ratna Prabha, who is Telugu, who belonged to Karnataka cadre served as the chief secretary in Karnataka and after retirement, she joined the BJP and was made chairman of the Karnataka Tourism Development Corporation.
For the Tirupati Lok Sabha seat bypolls (reserved constituency), she was declared as the BJP candidate much to the surprise of several BJP leaders and cadre. An upright and honest bureaucrat, Ratna Prabha once figured in the chargesheet filed by the CBI in YS Jaganmohan Reddy’s quid pro quo cases but was later discharged. Ratna Prabha has already been given the uphill task of contesting the Tirupati bypoll seat and she is finding it difficult to explain her party’s stand on the special category status issue.
The Union government had rejected the demand on the ground that the finance commission had suggested that no state could be granted a special category status because of increased devolutions from the Centre. But the fact remains that the 15th finance commission report for 2020-21 tabled in the Parliament clearly stated, “Some states have requested the grant of special category status. This does not constitute part of the mandate of the FC-XV and remains entirely in the domain of the Union Government, which can take an appropriate decision after due consideration.”
With a clear stand taken by the finance commission that the issue of grant of Special Category Status does not fall within its limits but with the Central government, there is a very definite inconsistency between the stand taken by the ministry of finance and the stand taken by the 15th finance commission. This aspect is being well exposed by the TDP in Tirupati campaign and it is getting a positive response from people. It may prove to be counter-productive for the BJP in the by poll.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Hyderabad.