Economic reforms in India never have a smooth passage. There exist in India political parties which announce their protest programme almost as soon as reforms are announced. It is almost a Pavlovian response. The announcements that came on Thursday and Friday regarding diesel and LPG prices and the opening up of certain sectors to foreign direct investment have inevitably produced the predictable response. The list of protests affecting the state of West Bengal is formidable indeed. The protest at the national level — a 24 hour Bharat bandh called by the National Democratic Alliance — will of course have no impact in West Bengal since the NDA is led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has no substantial support base in the state. But the Bharat bandh will coincide with a 12-hour general strike called by the Left Front in West Bengal. Leaving aside the state of West Bengal for the moment, the BJP’s reaction is baffling. When the NDA was in power, the BJP was an advocate of liberalization and economic reforms. It is now opposed to the same process which it championed. It would appear that to the BJP, economic reforms under the saffron flag are acceptable but not when they are announced under the Congress banner. This, not to put too fine a point on it, is not a principled opposition.
Ideologically, the Left has always opposed economic reforms and liberalization, no matter what the implications are for India’s economic growth. It is entrapped within its own ideology, and also within a set pattern of protest. It knows of no other weapon save a bandh. And such is its political clout that it cannot call the bandh anywhere else except in West Bengal. On the issue of economic reforms, the Left finds itself in the company of its principal rival in West Bengal, the Trinamul Congress, which, like the Left, has a visceral hostility to economic reforms. It will be interesting to see how these rivals play out their positions during the bandh on an issue regarding which they are in essential agreement. The opposition to economic reforms has thus brought together a motley group of political parties who otherwise have no concordance with one another. One conclusion that would suggest itself is that economic reforms have a fragile political base in India. Such an inference would have to be tempered by the recognition that political parties are often driven by vested interests.