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A perception about the lack of ability to govern is often associated with price rise.

Ashok Malik
Senior Journalist

Illustration: Anand Naorem

THERE IS no such thing as a good bandh. The general, all-purpose strike and shutdown is among India’s most pernicious gifts to the world. An element of coercion is built into bandhs. They are an economic drain. Whether in West Bengal or Gujarat, Kerala or Madhya Pradesh, statesponsored bandhs don’t leave a good taste.

Within this framework, the bandh of July 5, called by almost the entire Opposition in protest against rising prices, is indefensible. However, it would be churlish not to recognise that the bandh got far greater traction than imagined. Its impact was felt in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi, governed by the Congress. On the whole, the ruling party had more to worry about on the evening of July 5 than it had that morning.

The UPA government’s problem is not so much prices as the perception that it doesn’t care about prices, or can’t seem to do much about them. It is this collateral sentiment that often does more damage to governments battling inflation. In 1998, as onion prices shot up to Rs 70 a kg in north India, it was not as if people were desperately missing onions. That was a factor; but more than that, there was a feeling that the BJP, elected to office earlier that year, was incapable of governance.

In the UPA government’s case, the past one year has been a sorry picture of overhyped expectations and missed opportunities. True, incomes have risen across middle India. The archetypal Man in Matunga or Auntyji in Karol Bagh is more capable of withstanding high prices than his or her parents in the India of the 1970s. True, petrol price deregulation was long overdue. This was a necessary first step in fixing rational energy prices, which are not just an economic but also a social necessity. True, rising food prices are a global phenomenon and unlikely to be checked for, frankly, years to come.

The Congress is beginning to get a tad arrogant. It is convinced that the election of 2014 is already won

Even so, the government’s response to these issues has been blasé if not dismissive. When the monsoons failed in 2009, the refrain was that the rabi (spring) crop would bring down prices. Now the argument being proffered is the 2010 kharif (autumn) crop will bring down prices. The issue of petrol price decontrol has not been packaged politically. It has been left to a brusque “there will be no withdrawal” statement by the finance minister, and a short dissertation on how subsidies are unviable by the prime minister.

Meanwhile, the agriculture minister suddenly says he is overburdened, having got himself nominated to the International Cricket Council’s presidency, and wants fewer government responsibilities. In his tenure, he has publicly talked up food prices and correlations have been drawn between his statements and international food-grain market movements of certain businessmen.

Above all, the Congress is beginning to get just that wee bit arrogant. It is convinced that the election of 2014 is already won, that the BJP is still in the ICU and will soon be joined there — after the Kerala and West Bengal elections of 2011 — by the Left. As such it sees no challenges, and no reason to offer explanations.

There is one other point. Inflation is the result of too much money chasing too few goods. The Congress’ handout schemes, well-intentioned as they may be, are pouring money into the system. This money is not creating long-term assets; it is, however, driving up the cost of, for instance, farm labour. What is this “how to spend it” approach doing to the price surge? If petrol subsidies are not on, why are loan write-offs and job doles perfectly okay? Angularities and all, the bandh asked that question. India deserves an answer.

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