The biggest message is: the country is rather tired of the price spiral which has remained quite high for a long spell. The pocket is pinching and that counts, writes Mahesh Vijapurkar.
The July 5 bandh across India has some hidden messages we need to unravel. It was, in a long time, a successful one, quite peaceful as it goes save a few incidents, which given the size of the country, ought not to be taken as a significant bit of statistics. It needed not much of mobilising, and that, of all things, is the biggest message.
That message is: the country is rather tired of the price spiral which has remained quite high for a long spell, and that the explanation that petroleum product prices have to be upped because the marketing companies were losing on every bit sold and subsidies were adding to the deficits does not seem to go down well. The pocket is pinching and that counts.
Another message is that prices are the most sensitive issue in so far as the people are concerned and that if there were to be an elections, perhaps the government of the day would come close to losing, if not lose it entirely. This is a country where elections have been lost and won on the price of onions in the retail market. It is as if the people want political answers to arrest rising prices than economic explanations. Significantly, two Congress-led states, Maharashtra and Rajasthan have witnessed successful bandhs as did the ones where the NDA components rule.
That the country held its own against the worldwide meltdown since 2008 does not have an appeal. The expectation is that the government, regardless of its hue, ideology, leadership's vintage or pedigree, want stable prices and yes, of late, more people are paying their due taxes, hiding less of the wealth but then, a corrupt system does not let go of its hold on the people. Along with the liberation from price rise, they want to be liberated from a system; but they know one is as good -- or as bad, really -- as the other.
Let us take Mumbai, the country's biggest city which is all the time in a rush creating wealth. It succumbed to the bandh call rather easily. Though most of the trains ran, they ran empty while history of all bandhs is that only when that lifeline is strangulated by the agitators, the commuters stay at home because there is no way to go to work. This time, 60 per cent of the bus services were operated and yet, there were no takers.
The mobs were there, but fewer in numbers, seeking that people stay away from their businesses for the day and yet few ventured out. Government employees did not care a hoot for the warning that they would be punished for absenting from work; the shopkeepers kept the shutters down, and in places, even ATMs were not available. This, unfortunately, the chief minister, Ashok Chavan sees as not success of the bandh but that fear kept people away.
Fear, Mr Chavan? If it was, then what are you doing as a government to provide that sense of security to the people? Does it not indicate that the government failed in reassuring the people? Such a statement is self-defeating; either you don't take your job seriously or your public relations advisors have let you down. Rather badly, at that.
Taking the economic aspect in the context of Mumbai, it has to be realised that despite fresh and cheaper arrivals of vegetables in the wholesale market, the retail prices are high. If it costs less to bring it there from the farms, should the price double by the time the housewife picks it up from the local retailers? That cannot be explained away by the burden of petrol or diesel alone.
There have been reports too that though some pulses were cheaper in the market, the retailers were demanding that the maximum retail prices be marked higher. After this was in the media, with facts and figures, there was not a whimper of explanation from the government. Why is it twiddling its thumbs? This was much before the petrol prices shot up, you see, and no explanations.
But then, there is another message: that this price rise has been a fact in every corner of the country, begs an explanation from the non-Congress administrations in the states. Why is it expensive to live in Bangalore, or Kerala or West Bengal where the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left have a sway? These parties cast the stone at the Centre, but failed to do their bit in their own states. That is, if there was a political way to deal with the price rise, then these parties failed where they ruled.
Now, take the bus services efficiently operated in Mumbai by the municipalised BEST undertaking. Soon, on the pretext of the diesel price hike, the tickets are likely to get dearer. At best, ruses would be used to delay it, but using the same 'at cost' principle of the Centre, they would be raised -- make no mistake about it. And the irony is that the two major proponents of the July 5 bandh, the Shiv Sena and the BJP run the municipal corporation of Mumbai. And yet these parties were in the forefront of the agitation.
And if the violence was less, thank the courts for putting a restraint on the agitators by asking them to pay for damages. That is one salutary development which dampened the violent spirits, if not eliminating, reducing that component from the agitations.
That should explain why people are seen as against price rise but not happily disposed towards any political parties. Because, these parties don't find answers, they find excuses, and causes to take to the streets. What they cannot resolve in the parliament is sought to be expressed on the streets, though there are ways of doing business in that forum more effectively. Is it any wonder then that spite and venom is poured on politicians? This is the biggest message from the bandh. It has better be read and understood.
Mahesh Vijapurkar is a Thane-based commentator.