The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The real puzzle of bandhs in West Bengal

The season of bandhs is back again. Political parties, covering virtually the whole ideological spectrum, are calling them all over the country over various issues and at the slightest provocation. There is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad at one end of the spectrum, calling a bandh to protest against the arrest of their holy man, and there are the Marxists-Leninists at the other, protesting against ever-increasing oil prices. In between, the space is stuffily filled up by the likes of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Trinamool Congress and SUCI, each calling a bandh of its own with a different axe to grind. Over the last month, bandhs have been called with varying degrees of success in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Bihar and other states, and quite predictably West Bengal has its fair share too. Within a fortnight, three bandhs have been called in West Bengal, in addition to the VHP Bharat bandh over the same issue of rising petroleum prices.

The Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) must be feeling frustrated that, being parts of the ruling team, their freedom is now severely restricted as far as the calling of bandhs is concerned. Of the three bandhs called in West Bengal, the fate of the Trinamool bandh remains undecided at the time of writing this piece. But the two bandhs called by the SUCI and the left extremists have not been successful. Some would like to interpret this as a signal that people's attitudes towards bandhs are changing. This does not seem to be the right interpretation though.

Ordinary people, who are compelled to go out on the street to earn a living, hated bandhs in the past, as they hate them at present. They do so simply because bandhs impose a threat to their livelihood. Apart from that, there are hundreds of others who despise, for a whole bunch of reasons, disruptions in the normal functioning of the city. Some of them hopelessly struggle to take a sick relative to a hospital on a day when no transport is available. Others wait, curse and suffer without food or water at the frontiers of the state where their trains are held up by party ruffians for 24 unending hours. But for government employees enjoying a paid holiday and unemployed cricket enthusiasts fortuitously finding a space in the street to exhibit their talents, it should be difficult to find one who would deliberately support a bandh. Indeed, the unsuccessful bandhs do not signal any change of attitude; attitudes have always remained as they were, they simply signal that some political parties are less successful than others in spreading the fear psychosis among common people and in bringing normal life to a standstill by brute force.

The real puzzle lies elsewhere. Why, one is tempted to ask, do political parties call bandhs if the practice is hated by the majority' Aren't the parties concerned about their popularity and future election prospects' Clearly, if one wishes to explain the calling of bandhs, one has to do so by reconciling it with the fact that parties do care about their future chances of remaining in power. Does a successful bandh enhance a party's chances of remaining in power in spite of being apparently unpopular' A related question is why, instead of coordinating their protests, different political parties call bandhs on different days even if the issues over which they are calling bandhs are essentially the same'

The issues over which bandhs are called often turn out to be the least important. On many occasions we tend to forget them altogether and in any case, no one, including the party itself, seriously believes that a bandh can initiate a policy reversal. In this sense, bandhs are quite different from industrial strikes. In fact, from the point of view of the party, the main purpose of calling a bandh is to exhibit the sinews of its organization and to demonstrate its power to hold public life to ransom. The purpose is also to check if the organizational muscles are working satisfactorily, by putting them to occasional tests, so that at the crucial hour, that is at the time before the elections, they may be made to function like a well-oiled machine. To send a clear signal about itself, it is important that each has its own circus. To check the efficiency of its machine, it is necessary that each holds its muscle-flexing drill separately. That is why, even if the issues are the same, different political parties prefer to call bandhs on different dates.

It is not difficult to understand why parties would occasionally want to test their organizational machines by putting them through rigorous drills like bandhs. But it is not at all obvious why they would wish to demonstrate brute force by baring their muscles. Are we supposed to get impressed by their brawn like teenagers getting impressed by bare-chested movie heroes' Who are supposed to be impressed by this shameless exhibition of brute force anyway' Certainly not someone who is well settled in life with a steady job and a bright future.

However, not everyone in this country is well settled with a steady job. In fact, more than 90 per cent of the Indian labour force, earning their bread in the informal sector, have neither secure employment nor a bright future. They do not always live by the formal rules either. For example, some might infringe on railway land to build their shanties. Others encroach upon pavements of city streets to sell their ware and earn a marginal living. None gets the legally stipulated minimum wage. The distinguishing feature of all these people is that, being unprotected by formal laws, they are extremely vulnerable.

Therefore, they have to depend on some kind of political support for their existence. The political parties, in turn, lend them the essential support in exchange of votes. In fact, the right to vote is the only valuable thing these people possess. This is the reason why poor people in our country, on an average, are observed to exercise their voting rights more frequently than their affluent counterparts.

Partha Chatterjee, the eminent social scientist, has called this a 'political society', as opposed to a 'civil society'. In our country, the two societies exist side by side, but the importance of the former is clearly increasing. The redeeming feature of a political society is that its members depend on politics for their existence in a fundamental way. I think, among other things, bandhs are also deeply rooted in a political society. We have already argued that the vast majority who are living on the margins need to appropriate national resources, often illegally, for their survival. For this they need political support.

Political parties are also eager to support them because of their voting rights. In fact, there is a competition among the political parties to gain the confidence of different political societies. The party, which can exhibit more muscle power, is more likely to win the race. Organizing bandhs is one obvious way by which parties can compete by signalling their power.

Paradoxically, the signals are hurting most of those for whom they are designed. Hawkers, peddlers, autorickshaw-drivers, cabbies, all vulnerable and losing the day's wage because of bandhs, but they never really protest against them. Why aren't they protesting' They are not protesting because a successful bandh called by their party assures them that the party is strong enough to shoulder their cause too.

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