For someone who has rarely taken a false step since scripting the Congress' success story over the last five years, Sonia Gandhi's slip-up on Telangana was an uncharacteristic blunder.
The sudden decision to announce the government's approval for dividing Andhra Pradesh was all the more surprising since the Congress president is known to err on the side of caution. Her trademark style of functioning is to listen to everyone before taking a major decision.
It is unlikely, however, that such wide-ranging consultations took place before the fateful step was taken. Whatever the explanation - that the government was spooked by the fear of Maoists in an area noted for violent agitations - fact remains that the hasty step was unwarranted if only because a negative fallout from such a decision was all too obvious.
There is little doubt that if more people had been involved for longer hours to consider all the implications of bifurcating Andhra Pradesh, the downside of the proposed split would have become too stark to be ignored. The subsequent statement against smaller states by Pranab Mukherjee showed that this aspect of the decision was not emphasised as much as it should have been.
Even if P. Chidambaram, who made the announcement, was concerned mainly with the Maoist threat, the destabilising impact of the decision was immediately obvious to Mukherjee because of the longstanding demand for Gorkhaland in his home state of West Bengal. Similarly, Sharad Pawar would have warned against the resuscitation of the Vidarbha demand in Maharashtra.
Arguably, a basic reason for Sonia Gandhi's faux pas is the decentralisation that has taken place under her. Unlike her mother-in-law and late prime minister Indira Gandhi, who emasculated all her ministers into ciphers to take all power into her own hands, Sonia Gandhi seems to believe in delegating authority.
The positive side of such an attitude cannot be denied. It has been evident from the clear division of the spheres of influence between the government and the party. As a result, Manmohan Singh has been able to pursue his policies without any let-up or hindrance, as was evident from the signing of the nuclear deal although Sonia Gandhi was not too enthusiastic about it.
At one stage, her remark that the communists had a point when they opposed the deal made Manmohan Singh say, almost in despair, that not clinching the agreement with the US would not be the end of the world.
Because of her lenience, the prime minister too has tripped up occasionally, as in Sharm-al-Sheikh where Pakistan wheedled a meaningful reference about the Baloch insurgency out of the Indian delegation. Just as New Delhi backtracked a few days later on the question, a similar retreat is apparently in the offing on the Telangana issue as well.
But it will not be easy to repair the damage to Sonia Gandhi's reputation for circumspection and political acumen - the latter exemplified by her refusal to accept the prime minister's post which had flummoxed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The false step will haunt her all the more if the demands for smaller states refuse to die down. The Telangana issue may prove to be some kind of benchmark not only because it has been pending for a long time but also because it had the approval of the states reorganisation commission of 1955. A second commission, if it is set up, will be hard put to negate the demand.
Like Telangana, the claim for separating the Darjeeling hills from West Bengal has been around for a long time - a hundred years, according to its supporters. The problem with Sonia Gandhi's blooper is that in both the cases, it is the Congress which will suffer.
While the party's base will be undermined in Andhra Pradesh, where it is in power, its hope of ousting the Left from West Bengal in the company of its alliance partner, the Trinamool Congress, will be dashed if the Gorkhaland agitation gains momentum.
Any such development will be worrisome for the Congress because it has to be remembered that its success in the last two general elections was not as substantial as it may have wished. The party still has to depend on its allies to survive. Its stumbling will not only weaken it but also embolden the allies. The confidence, therefore, with which the government is trying to push through its agenda, as on disinvestment, will be lacking in future.
The Telangana issue will not only lead to a messy situation with the divisive elements rearing their heads in almost every state but also affect the government's and the party's resolve on economic reforms as well as internal security. Even where foreign relations are concerned, India's unfriendly neighbours will be delighted at the prospect of balkanization, which a Chinese analyst wanted his country to encourage.
What is unfortunate, however, is that the entire situation could have been avoided if Sonia Gandhi had followed her customary cautious instincts.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org