The hike in petrol prices will undoubtedly hurt people not only in Mumbai but across the country, but the opposition, whether it is the NDA or the Left, has demonstrated its lack of political imagination by calling for a Bharat bandh on May 31 to protest against the hike.
A bandh is an outdated form of protest. Moreover, it causes losses to the national economy, disrupts public life and has the element of coercion and violence associated with it.
Of course, some political parties, especially those like the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, thrive on bandhs and cannot think beyond them, for these so-called agitations give them an opportunity to demonstrate their muscle.
But if the idea is not the display of muscle but the genuine articulation of public grievances, surely there are better ways to protest. Massive public rallies can be held at popular venues for public agitations, such as Shivaji Park, or, in view of the high court’s silence zone directive in the case of Shivaji Park, at Azad Maidan, Girgaum Chowpatty or the Bandra-Kurla Complex grounds. The medium of television, radio and, increasingly, the web and social networking sites, can be effectively used for airing issues, and parties can come out with pamphlets and booklets to make a strong case against the government’s policies.
Had someone like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar been around, for instance, he would have most likely published a scholarly yet accessible tract on the country’s overall economic situation today, debated issues arising out of the fiscal crisis and the free fall of the rupee and suggested policy alternatives.
Others during the Indian national movement, such as Lokmanya Tilak and Gopal Ganesh Agarkar, used their respective newspapers/periodicals to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The pages of Tilak’s Kesari and Maratha, and Agarkar’s Sudharak, are strewn with bitter exchanges between the two — one preferring political reforms over social ones, and the other insisting that political transformation would be meaningless without thoroughgoing social change — and they have, occasionally, even made personal attacks against each other, but they could never be accused of intellectual bankruptcy the way political parties today can be. (Coincidentally, as I write this, the BJP’s national executive meet is under way in Mumbai, and all the talk centered around it is not about the party’s programmes and policies but about an open, intra-party struggle for leadership.)
A better time for the raising of the quality of public discourse cannot be imagined, for there is a perception of policy paralysis in the country, the impact of the global economic situation is being felt and there is a need for an informed debate on the direction India will take.
But the Shiv Sena and the BJP began their protests against the petrol price hike by wantonly interrupting public life in several parts of Maharashtra on Thursday: In Sangli, Satara and Kolhapur in western Maharashtra, they forced shops to down shutters, and in Ahmednagar and some other places, they organised disruptive rasta rokos, inconveniencing the aam aadmi.
People will be even more inconvenienced on May 31 if the Bharat bandh goes through, and they will also have no idea of how the opposition can counter this increase in petrol prices by way of a well-articulated economic strategy. And the country will end up poor by several hundred crores.
That’s not a great result in an economic crisis.