The United Democratic Front must give up the hartal it has called for February 19. Whatever the opposition front hopes to gain from it can be achieved without it.
It was on January 31 that the UDF high-power committee decoded on the hartal. Obviously its intention was not to give expression to emotions swelling up in the people’s minds on any particular issue. If it were, the committee would not have picked a day nearly three weeks hence for the hartal.
Only five days are left for the appointed day. Leaders may wonder how they can abandon the hartal at this late stage, disappointing the front workers who have toiled all these days to make it a success. Here they must demonstrate a sense of realism. What they can gain by giving up the hartal is much more than what they can gain by going ahead with it.
According to UDF Convener P. P. Thankachan, the hartal has been called to focus attention on the Left Democratic Front government’s failure on five issues. They are: price rise; stoppage of rice subsidy for those above and below the price line and abandonment of the health insurance scheme; delay in implementing the Centre’s old-age pension scheme; failure to help Supplyco to intervene effectively in the market; and faltering in implementation of the five-year plan.
Gandhiji, who conceived hartal as a mode of protest, showed an uncanny ability to pick subjects for agitation. But one cannot but say that what reflects in the decision of the Congress-led front is poverty of ideas. Faltering in plan implementation and failure to take advantage of Central schemes are certainly matters that deserve serious notice. But they are so common that they do not have the ability to attract and retain the people’s attention.
The only issue raised by the UDF which the people can easily identify as one that affects them directly is price rise. Immediately after it announced the hartal, the LDF and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued statements deploring it. Both argued that price rise is the result of the policies pursued by the Centre and therefore it is against the Centre, and not against the State government, that it should agitate. This is utter nonsense. The State government alone bears responsibility for imposing additional burden on the people on several items like milk price and electricity rates.
Last week the CPI (M) blocked roads in Tamil Nadu in protest against price rise. Whether you block roads in Chennai or stage a hartal in Kerala, it is the people who suffer, not the Central government or the State government.
The UDF says Supplyco has not been able to check price rise because of the Finance department’s failure to provide funds in time. Finance Minister Thomas Isaac has imposed much hardship on the people and provided equal relief to the likes of fake lottery operators. But it is unfair to lay the blame for the price rise entirely on him.
If the UDF, which comes to power at intervals of five years, does not know that the State government’s ability to hold the price line by offering subsidies is limited, who does? The LDF government has done what it can. It is another matter that its efforts have not yielded sufficient results. Reduction of subsidies is the approved policy of the Congress-led government at the Centre. The LDF cannot, therefore, be blamed for lowering the subsidy. But the Kerala government was providing rice subsidy in the name of the poor and passing on the benefit to rice mill owners. Both the fronts have been parties to this fraud. If the State government had implemented the subsidy scheme truthfully and the Centre was convinced of it, the State probably would not have encountered the difficulty that it now experiences in obtaining timely help in exigent circumstances.
The State Assembly’s budget session begins next Wednesday. The debates on the Governor’s address and the demands for grants will provide members the opportunity to raise any issue of interest to them. Is it then necessary to have a hartal on Tuesday to draw people’s attention to any particular issue?
From demonstrations by village committees to a day’s fast by the Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee president, the Congress has already organized many agitations to highlight the LDF government’s failures. They provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the feelings of the Congress party and the other constituents of the UDF. There is only one thing that the hartal can do beyond what these agitations have done: cause hardship to the people. The UDF must consider whether it should do that. More particularly, the Congress.
This request is addressed especially to the Congress because it is the largest democratic party of the country and of Kerala too. Unlike most other parties, it not only participates in the democratic process but sincerely believes in the present democratic dispensation. Although there are many things in its history that do not accord with democracy, like the Emergency and the dismissal of the Communist government that came to power through the ballot box, the credit for the continuance of the democratic dispensation also belongs to it.
Hartal is a mode of agitation that has lost its relevance due to excessive use. What it demonstrates today is not the people’s feelings but the parties’ ability to frighten them. Civil society in Kerala has been demanding for some time that this political obscenity must be ended. The Congress, which has an obligation to uphold democratic values, must respect public opinion and, instead of staging hartal on February 19, organize programmes that do not cause hardship to the people. The Muslim League’s decision to organize padayatras on a day as a token of protest is a good example. If the Congress takes the initiative, the other UDF constituents may not insist on going ahead with the hartal.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi edition dated February 14, 2008