In the politics of protest, the Bandh is way past its use-by date
Don’t know how to put it but if I were to use a word, it would be: Outdated. For the India of tomorrow, the political establishment is disappointingly out of sync. Steeped in the old, with no sense of reference to a future that has already happened, the ‘political’ has virtually disengaged with the ‘economy’, writes Gautam Chikermane.columns Updated: Jul 06, 2010 12:38 IST
Don’t know how to put it but if I were to use a word, it would be: Outdated. For the India of tomorrow, the political establishment is disappointingly out of sync. Steeped in the old, with no sense of reference to a future that has already happened, the ‘political’ has virtually disengaged with the ‘economy’. The Opposition’s politics of protest has ceded the new authority of growth and prosperity to the governing parties. That self-goal behind it, the Opposition is now all set to face the resultant anger of the people it is pretending to protect.
They may choose to ignore the statistically-dispersed and thereby politically-insignificant middle class, who they may say has a vested interest in ensuring business as usual — working a hard day, sending children to school, shopping at a mall and maybe watching a 10.40 pm show of The Karate Kid — as they EMI their way through cars and houses. This class of people doesn’t vote, so let’s not worry about them…so the argument goes.
But when they come to fight for the poor, they use tools of the past that have no meaning in the political economy of today. For one who brings home an income and food only if he goes out to work as a construction labour, a small trader or a driver, for instance, anything that comes in the way of his reaching his work place means one day’s wages lost. A rickshaw puller not only loses his earnings for the day, but in many cases, his rickshaw as well, as goons in the garb of fighting-for-the-people destroy his livelihood that in most cases is on lease.
The Opposition hasn’t a clue of what an 8-10 per cent GDP growth rate means to the man on the street or to a nation starved of opportunities. If inflation has made life tough — and there’s no denying that — a large part of that difficulty has been made up by increased incomes. A very rich farmer told me last year that NREGA is destroying agriculture as he was unable to find labourers to work his farm. Meaning, even in the remote interiors of India, incomes — and the accompanying labour choices — are up.
Broadly, the bandh is to protest UPA’s economic reforms through deregulation of petrol and increase in the price of diesel, kerosene and LPG cylinders. What the Opposition means, but possibly doesn’t know, is: let the burden of what we spend today be borne by our children tomorrow. The fact that the government could have balanced this deregulation and the resultant price rise with a cut in taxes on the fuel is a fair argument. I suspect the government is keeping that as a policy flexibility in case global prices of fuel cross $100 a barrel again. Besides, sales tax is a state subject and many Opposition governed states haven’t cut those.
Whatever else you do, the pressure on fuel prices is not going to go away. And not because of shortages of the commodity or its global prices that will rise and fall in this age of serial crises. It’s because when an economy starts to grow at the pace India currently is with a trillion-dollar scale, it needs more energy to fuel its power plants, automobiles, commercial vehicles, aircraft, ships that in turn feed its industries, businesses, households. It’s a part of growing up, I would say.
Returning to politics, the rise in the price of an LPG cylinder is not going to affect the poor as the Opposition parties are suggesting but the non-voting, politically-unimportant middle class. The increase in petrol prices is going to affect those with two- or four-wheelers, not the poor who walk or cycle. The increase in the price of an LPG cylinder is not going to affect the poor who run their kitchens on wood, but the middle class. Kerosene could be the sole exception which the relatively less well off — but certainly not the poor — use.
There remains the issue of fuel price rise trickling into the economy as transporters raise their freight rates, which in turn increase prices of goods and services. According to the government this will add 1 per cent to inflation — not high but badly timed as food inflation stands at 12 per cent and wholesale price inflation at 10 per cent. My suspicion is that such a rise would be digestible, given that the bandh comes a year after prices have been ruling high. So, what’s the political logic of this bandh that hurts largely the poor?
The answer: caught up in the momentum of the past, infatuated by the Angry Young Man of the 1970s and with little imagination to lead India and its citizens towards a fast-growing developed economy status, the Opposition is crying for political attention with nothing to offer. It is needlessly pushing the use-by date of a tool that has all but died.