Not so fast
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Hunger strikes have come a long way since Potti Sriramulu agitated for an Andhra state in 1952
The statehood of Andhra Pradesh has always been linked to fasts. Potti Sriramulu's fast unto death in 1952 forced the government to consider the creation of a separate Andhra state. In 2009, when TRS president K. Chandrashekar Rao began a hunger strike in Hyderabad, a nervous Centre agreed to the Telangana demand. So when TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu and the YSR Congress's Jaganmohan Reddy decided to fast in protest against the bifurcation — passed by the Union cabinet this month — they were only following tradition. But the political fast has travelled a long way since 1952.
Sriramulu was using the idiom of protest at a time when its associations with the freedom movement were still strong. But since then, few ideas have been as egregiously misinterpreted as the Gandhian fast. To begin with, Gandhi rarely fasted to extract concessions from government. Whether in atonement for the Chauri Chaura violence or in the interests of Hindu-Muslim unity, his public fasts were often meant to be a symbolic act of healing or cleansing the polity. Post-Independence, this deeply nuanced idiom has been turned into a form of political brinkmanship — witness its use by the Anna Hazare agitation for the Jan Lokpal Bill in 2011, which initially managed to bring the Centre to its knees. Politicians have also used it to showboat on popular causes — Narendra Modi's sadbhavana flash-fast in 2011, J. Jayalalithaa's day-long fast on the Cauvery issue in 2007 or Mamata Banerjee's hunger strike on Singur in 2006.
Frantic coverage by 24-hour news channels has ushered in the age of the high-visibility fast. As the spectacle is magnified, however, the moral capital of the political fast is diminished.
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