Democracy is all about Dissent

The 12-hour shutdown—Bharat Bandh—called by the Congress party and its 20 odd allies including the Left, on September 10, in protest against rising fuel prices and sliding of rupee against dollar, was not a total failure as claimed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Nor was it a grand success. The ruling BJP has now accepted the bitter reality that they cannot do anything in controlling prices, they are helpless before the market operators, both domestic and global. As fuel prices continue to rise, ordinary people are adversely affected because of food inflation caused by price rise. The issue was burning that in many places across the country people responded to the bandh call somewhat spontaneously though the sponsors of the all India strike, more precisely the Congress, didn't take much trouble to mobilise masses in support of the general strike through painstaking campaigning. No doubt the Congress these days shows a little bit of resilience, they are trying to regain their lost ground by continually attacking the Modi regime that has failed the people of the country on almost every front. The bandh, otherwise planned half-heartedly, without adequate preparation, was an occasion for the Congress to moot the idea of a grand alliance against the BJP in the coming parliamentary election in early 2019.

The hard fact is that oil is the sacred cow for both the centre and state governments, as they collect huge tax revenue from petrol and diesel. It's not under GST. They have deliberately kept it outside the ambit of GST. No government, central or state, would like to cut their respective taxes on oil. If anything, India has one of the most iniquitous tax structures for petroleum products. Apart from massive central excise duties, there is Value Added Tax (VAT) levied by states. Then the states also impose obnoxious cess. All this leads to nearly half the price of petrol and diesel per litre being the tax component. One may get some crude idea from the crude facts that between November 2014 and January 2018, the excise duties were increased nine times. For petrol, these hikes amounted to Rs 11.77 per litre, and for diesel, it was Rs 13.47. Ever since petrol and diesel prices were deregulated, consumers have been fleeced like anything. And it's Modi's welfare state. In truth the fall in oil and crude prices in 2014 in international market was of no use value to the people because the benefit of the fall in prices in international market was not passed by the government to the consumers. Prices in international market were falling but the Modis systematically started increasing excise duties to have a bonanza in their coffer. The colonial rulers used to extract huge taxes from common people even under distress situation but the Modis are no better than their colonial predecessors. In many respects they are the worse. As a kind of tokenism, some state governments have cut VAT on petrol and diesel but such cuts are so insignificant and inconsequential that they would hardly affect the market, leaving the businessmen and traders to dictate terms in retail market as they please.

Ironically, the major sponsors of bandh—Congress and Left—didn't vociferously raise the question of abnormal tax factor in oil pricing. In truth there was more politics than economics in the bandh as Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Ex-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were more interested in grilling Modi under one pretext or another without attacking the roots. They called for a broad-based opposition unity asserting that only united oppositions could defeat the BJP. But there is no magic wand that could unite the disgruntled opposition forces that again place priority of their sectional interests over national interests. Perhaps they saw too much in a single bandh and that too half-hearted, and began to think the unthinkable—a grand opposition alliance emerging to dislodge the BJP. However, not all opposition parties, rather regional parties supported the bandh, they actually opposed it. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) of Mayawati opposed it blaming the Congress equally for such a crisis situation. So did the TMC in Bengal. Mayawati accused the BJP of following the same Congress policies that made the UPA unpopular and forced the Congress to face defeat in the last general election. While the Congress is hoping to play the role of big brother as a natural right, some regional outfits like BSP may like to go it alone. In that event united opposition remains as elusive as ever. The so-called 20 odd opposition parties that are with the Congress don't really matter much in arithmetic game. Those who matter are not with the Congress. With the situation drifting towards chaos, particularly in controlling fuel prices, rethinking subsidy should be the logical conclusion though no party is advocating reversion to the old subsidy regime.

Demonetisation, ill-conceived and hastily implemented GST and now fuel prices—all these have ruined the backbone of middle class and wage earners in informal sector. Congress and Left are in no position to cash in on miseries of the people because they lack aggression. Mild criticism of Modi and that too in a vague manner without ground action across the length and breadth of the country, is too clever by half and it is unlikely to generate an anti-incumbency wave against the notorious saffron rule.

As the Modis cannot defend the indefensible—disastrous economic policies, they frequently indulge in diversionary tactics. Mob lynching and hate programme apart they have launched a well-planned attack on 'urban naxals'. These 'naxals" are not AK-47 wielding militants, they are all human rights activists and social workers, demanding democratic space to voice their dissent in a democratic way. All Indian jails are over-crowded with political dissenters, so called terrorits with minority tag, ethnic communities people, dalits and tribals. Surely Democracy is all for dissent but the Modis are hell bent on silencing dissent and destroying whatever remains of democratic space under the grandiose propaganda of combating 'urban naxals'.

Vol. 51, No.12, Sep 23 - 29, 2018