Yesterday’s 12 hour protest over the quantum jump in fuel pricing successfully conveyed to the UPA government people’s displeasure vis-à-vis the recent petrol hike. Subtly supported by the BJP government in Goa, the bandh was largely successful, but the worst victims were tourists who were stranded without transport, even food.
The apex court tried to “ban” bandhs in 1998. In 2004, it actually fined two parties – BJP and Shiv Sena for organizing a bandh in Mumbai as a protest against bomb blasts in the city. The most famous fuel hike bandh was on July 5, 2010, when the nation-wide stir resulted in a loss of an estimated Rs 13,000 crores. Considering that such bandhs result in severe loss to the country and business in particular, the question arises: are those who issue such clarion calls really interested in the economy of the country, or are they primarily focused on playing politics, using people as pawns to settle scores? This anti-national attitude needs re-orientation from political parties because, eventually, bandhs yield no pro-active result, as will be the case with this bandh.
Of course, once petrol prices are deregulated as part of the liberalized economy, the benefits of which we all enjoy, including imported cars (as opposed to Fiat and Ambassador of old), frontier technology in every field, luxury goods, cable TV (as opposed to Doordarshan) etc, one cannot then cry about rise in petrol prices since they are linked to international forces of demand and supply.
However, the Central government can be put on the mat for more efficient taxation regimes and demand that duties on petrol be kept to the minimum as done in the Middle East, Pakistan and Malaysia, by cutting dealer commission, octroi etc. But the only way to do this is through Parliamentary debate, not street democracy or mobocracy.
The fact remains that when the NDA was in power at the Centre, they were fierce votaries of Liberalization and free economy, and it was the then Petroleum Minister Ram Naik who had deregulated the fuel prices and linked them to international pricing, since they could not bear the financial burden and balance the budgets. During the NDA regime, fuel was periodically priced almost after a 20 day gap.
Yesterday’s bandh resulted in a huge loss to the nation. This becomes significant in the wake of tottering Indian economy. The call for the bandh is therefore questionable, specially because there was no shift in government policy. With the BJP, a part of the constituent supporting the bandh, it was expected that the bus lobby would support the bandh – out of fear than conviction. What however was strange was the manner private bus operators initially were averse to support the strike, but later did a U turn. Their initial decision stemmed from the fact that in the past, the Transport Department had wielded its whip by ordering cancellation of permits when bus operators refused to fall in line. The bus operators eventually agreed to support the stir, but not before exposing the NDA government who first deregularised petrol and diesel prices.
Every participant in the bandh believes that these hartals have no impact, but only succeed in echoing the sentiments of the people and embarrassing the government in power. Industrialists supporting the closure is also not unexpected because not many want to be at the wrong side of the government, which is a powerful position to give them freebies. At the end of the day, the bandh is a political weapon of the Opposition, with no gains for the common man. It only shows the bankruptcy of our leaders to use Parliamentary democracy effectively, and questions the function of democracy in developing countries.