Originally Published 2010-07-07 00:00:00 Published on Jul 07, 2010
Political parties appear to lack imagination. In this age of information technology, they need to apply their mind to devise innovative ways of arousing popular interest in public issues. There is a serious disconnect between the political representatives and the people.
Unimaginative Opposition
The Bharat Bandh, organised by the combined opposition on Monday (July 5), was comparatively more successful, particularly in the non-Congress ruled states. The bandh was called to protest against what the opposition parties claimed unprecedented price rise and recent hike in the prices of petroleum products. They also claimed that the bandh had the backing of people at large.

It was a welcome development that the Left parties and the BJP came together on an issue, sinking their ideological differences. But the big question here is that whether this convergence is going to help the people at large on whose behalf the political parties seek to speak. The answer is a big 'no' as the people kept away from participating in the bandh while it was left to the political workers of these parties and their close sympathisers to block roads, stall public transport, stop trains and air traffic. As in most cases, the bandh's success depended upon the muscle power of the political workers as shops and other business establishments put their shutters down out of fear, and not out of conviction. 

May be that is why the bandh was most successful in Gujarat where a BJP government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi is in power. The protest was most loud in the Opposition parties ruled States of West Bengal, Kerala, Bihar, Karnatka, Punjab, Himachal, Madhya Pradeh and Uttarakhand.

The impact of the bandh was very minimal and not evident in most Congress-ruled States as if the people living in there were not affected by the price rise or the hike in petroleum prices. 
The only inference which can be drawn from this is that even governments have now dropped pretences of being neutral. The conclusion is that all governments, irrespective of ideologies they claim to represent, are rank partisan. They are not working for the people but stand for their own self political interest. The Bandh did not help anyone. It only caused problems.  

In sheer economic terms, there are different estimates of losses, but the minimum figure given by the Confederation of Indian Industries is Rs 3000 crore. Other federations and associations have higher figures touching Rs 13,000 crores. Collateral damages in terms of education and health cannot be measured. Schools were closed and many could not reach hospitals as the public transport was the target of the bandh organizers.

Now let us take up the issue of decontrol of pricing of petroleum goods which was the immediate reason for protests. The first step towards decontrolling the petroleum sector was taken by the United Front government which wad led by Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda. All Left parties were supporting it while the CPI was part of the government. The second step was taken by the NDA government of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. The final step has been taken by the UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

So, why this protest now as all political parties were once part of the decision to decontrol the prices. The economic logic behind the decision is that through decontrolling the petroleum prices, the government will be able to cut subsidies given to consumers and thus would be able to reduce the budget deficit. This in turn will enable the government to decrease its borrowings and curb the burden of interest payment. No government can afford to flout these economic principles.

Even now, we are witnessing economic crisis in Europe. Greece had to be bailed out by a big financial package given by Germany. Why did Greece require this package which has caused heart burns among the German citizens?  The simple answer is that Greece had been living beyond its means. In economic terms, Greece had a huge budget deficit as the state was subsidizing many welfare measures.

Undoubtedly, poor need support and they require protection against inflation. But are they served through indirect subsidies given to petroleum sector? These subsidies are largely pocketed by rich farmers, middle class and higher middle class people. Would it not be better if the poor sections are given better wages? Would it not be better if the government created more employment opportunities?          

The unity or understanding between opposition parties, which stand on different ends of the political spectrum, strengthen every time the Congress Party gets strengthened. That has been and continues to be the history of Indian politics.     

A successful parliamentary democracy, undoubtedly, functions, survives and excels on the dialectics between the ruling side and the opposition with the role of the latter being crucial. But can we, rather the nation at large, claim satisfaction at the relationship between the ruling combine and the opposition? There appears to be a serious disconnect between the Congress (leading the ruling combine in New Delhi) and the Opposition. 

The Bharat Bandh and the defeat of the cut motions on Tuesday, April 27, 2010, in the Lok Sabha once again demonstrated the sorry state in which the opposition finds itself today. 

Plagued by lack of direction, strategy and a political path in a world where politics is becoming less ideology driven and more issue based, Opposition parties are using outdated and redundant tools to remain politically relevant. In Parliament and legislatures, the Opposition parties indulge in negative ways like walk-outs, shouting bouts, obstructions leading to adjournments to highlight issues and grievances.

Outside the legislatures, these parties stage dharnas, bandhs, demonstrations and strikes to raise issues of public importance and significance. Hartals and bandhs were effective instruments when communications were slow and the Government was the largest employer. But now the scenario has changed significantly, necessitating the need for innovative and imaginative tools. But political parties appear to lack imagination. In this age of information technology and faster and effective communications, political parties need to apply their mind to devise ways of arousing popular interest in public issues. There is a serious disconnect between the political representatives and the people.      

(Dr. Satish Misra is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Politics and Governance, Observer Research Foundation)

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