Closed chapter: Bandhs are no longer a useful protest technique

In organising a Bharat Bandh on Monday the opposition parties have shown that they are way behind the times as far as the techniques of modern politics are concerned. The bandh rarely enjoyed much traction among the electorate even during the notoriously inefficient, inward-looking licence raj, when a day’s stoppage of work had little impact on already abysmal productivity levels. In the post-reform era, the strengthening global market linkages of the Indian economy mean that a day's work stoppage is something India can ill afford. Reports from around the country present a picture of gratuitous violence and pointless disruptions: Rail and road links blocked, traffic jams, businesses forced to close, miscreants stoning buses and public property, etc. It is difficult to quantify the loss from such disruption. One index can be had from an estimate by Assocham following a Bharat Bandh called by trade unions in 2016. Assocham put the loss to the economy at Rs 180 billion, a steep price to pay for an emerging economy like India. Thanks to the internet, most large and medium organisations ensure that it’s business as usual anyway. Then as now, it’s the daily wage earner and the small businesses and kirana shop owners who are hurt the most.

For an opposition that routinely jeers at Prime Minister Narendra Modi for reneging on his 2014 job creation promises, depriving people of their livelihood is hardly likely to enhance these political parties’ credibility. More to the point, given that the bandh is a symptom that the opposition parties are clearly gearing up for the 2019 parliamentary elections, these are the people who take the trouble to line up at the hustings much more than the middle and upper middle classes. It is hard to understand how the opposition parties can hope to gain votes after disrupting their lives over an issue that impacts them only tangentially. High fuel prices may be a handy tool with which to batter the ruling regime; but to force people to not work for this reason defies reason. Further, a little rational thinking would show that they have a weak case for asking the government to cut central excise on fuel; it's the states with their hefty ad-valorem rates that need to do so.

Paralysing public life in protest against governmental policy had a certain utility under the British because it handily disrupted the business of the Raj and forced the colonial rulers to respond. Even if the responses were unsatisfactory, the police could be relied on to create nationalist martyrs by throwing protestors into jail. In post-independence India, the bandh became a favoured technique perfected by the Left parties to rail against the policies of the Centre and, inevitably, Kerala and West Bengal became India’s Bandh Central. If the opposition alliance needs proof of the ineffectualness of the politics of disruption, the rapidly dwindling number of seats in the Lok Sabha and the comprehensive ejection of the Left in West Bengal offer ample testimony. If anything, Monday’s Bharat Bandh only shows how the leaders of the Congress and other opposition parties urgently need to update their repertoire of protest and apply their minds to offering the Indian electorate a workable agenda. Simply projecting themselves as a non-NDA alternative is not enough.


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