'We have exposed the power sector reforms'

Published : Sep 16, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with B.V. Raghavalu, CPI(M) State secretary, Andhra Pradesh.

Nine Left parties have since May been in the forefront of the agitation against the hike in the power tariffs in Andhra Pradesh, synchronising their agitational programmes with the main Opposition party, the Congress(I). B.V. Raghavalu, secretary of the State Committee of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), who has been actively involved in the agitation, spoke to V. Sridhar in Hyderabad about the all-India ramifications of the protests. Excerpts from the interview:

The agitation against the power sector reforms appears to have entered a new phase after the police opened fire on protestors in Hyderabad on August 28. Do you see a qualitative change in the situation?

Yes, there is a change in the situation. The movement since May picked up momentum gradually. August 28 was the peak moment in the struggle against the hike in power tariffs. Simultaneously, Opposition legislators staged a hunger-strike. It was called of f on August 28. The movement has now entered a long-drawn phase. This means that new sections of people have to be drawn into it and new forms of struggle have to be devised. Three things have to be done in the future: we have to intensify the movement, widen it and run it on a long-term basis. I feel that the conditions are suitable for this.

Many sections of the people expressed solidarity with the struggle - not just the trade unions and peasant organisations, but even lawyers, artists and writers. Associations representing the weaker sections have also supported the cause. they are confide nt that we are steadfast in our resistance to economic reforms.

What has happened to Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu's image as the champion of reforms?

The August 28 incidents have shattered many myths about Chandrababu Naidu. First, the belief that he is invincible has been shaken. The movement has shown that he is weak-kneed and has played into the hands of the World Bank; that he is vulnerable to a u nited movement; and that the power of the media cannot prevent the truth from sinking in. As the movement grew in strength, the Chief Minister pleaded with the people to bear with the tariff hike and promised to spare consumers when the next revision is due in December 2000. This is a moral victory for the movement. The myth, reinforced by the national and international media, that he enjoys the support of the people has also been shattered.

Political parties such as the Congress(I) that were supportive of the World Bank-induced reforms are now bitterly opposed to the Bank policies. In the State Assembly, even the floor leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Indrasena Reddy, alleged that the interests of the State are being mortgaged to the World Bank. There are some elements in the State BJP, who are not so ideologically committed, who feel that the wishes of the people should be respected. The public outrage is so enormous that the BJP has demanded a rollback of the hike. Within the ruling TDP (Telugu Desam Party) also signs of outrage at the government's handling of the protests are evident. One of the achievements of the movement is the bringing to light of the World Bank's role in the reforms process.

What are the innovative features of the agitation?

Many new methods of struggle have been evolved by the people. In the last few years there have been several occupational and lifestyle changes. These have given rise to new forms of protests. The cadres and committed activists participate in the old form s of protest, such as dharnas, picketing demonstrations and hunger strikes. But ordinary people prefer newer forms. For instance, the signature campaigns were a tremendous success. When we campaigned at railway stations and bus stands, people queued up t o sign the protest petitions. Another form of protest was the "People's Ballot". People were asked to vote for or against the tariff hike. Over five lakh ballots were polled in a single day across the State. The whole process - from polling to counting - was conducted in the presence of media representatives and, of course, the overwhelming response was against the hike. The government alleged that the balloting was rigged. We challenged it to conduct such a vote.

Another innovative protest was the bijli bandh. The traders of the Chikkadapalli area in Hyderabad were the first to switch off their power connections and conduct business without power for an hour as a mark of protest. We learnt from this experi ence. On August 24, the entire State was plunged into darkness when we organised a bijli bandh for an hour between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.

Since these forms of protest are purely voluntary, they give the people a chance to give full expression to their feelings. This is also the meaning of the complete and real involvement of the people. When people attend our public meetings, we cannot cla im that they support us. They may just be curious to hear us. But when people participate in such innovative protests they participate fully.

The nine Left parties were united on a single platform in Andhra Pradesh, adding a new dimension to the politics of resistance to economic reforms. What are the implications and lessons for the unity of Left forces at the national level?

The Communist movement in Andhra Pradesh has a glorious history. Unfortunately, since the 1970s the movement here has splintered into several groups. Exasperated by the state of affairs in the movement, people also lost confidence in the communists. The power tariff issue united the people and they forced the communists to come together. The people have also realised that although they could not force a rollback, they have acquired a new strength to fight the repressive policies of the government. Durin g the 100-day struggle, the communists learnt to live together.

How was this possible?

The nine Left parties kept ideological issues out of the agenda and agreed to focus on the struggle. We also realised during the course of the struggle that although we are trying to change the situation, we are also being changed by the emerging situati on. We adopted forms of struggle that were earlier considered revisionist or Gandhian. Although more than 25,000 protestors were arrested across the State and there were 158 instances of lathicharges on protestors, no public property was destroyed and no t a single policeman was attacked. This has been a fully non-violent movement although repression was let loose on us. Despite several differences, the Left parties accepted this form of struggle and it prevented us from being isolated. For the sake of t he unity of the people, we buried our differences with the Congress(I) in order to take part in the joint struggles.

How did the Left manage to keep company with the Congress(I) despite its ambivalence on the power sector reforms? What are the Congress(I)'s compulsions that have forced it to keep company with the Left?

We started on the basic premise that the tariff hike has imposed a heavy burden on the people. To build the struggle we needed to mobilise every section of the people. This task posed some questions. We realised that about 40 to 50 per cent of the masses are behind the Congress(I); we could not strengthen the movement without mass support. So we had to live with the Congress(I). At the same time, we did not want to lose our identity. We evolved a new tactic of synchronisation with the Congress(I). The L eft parties decided to discuss and deliberate their programme of action with the Congress(I) and conduct the agitations on the same day but as separate entities. At the ground level there was unity between the two forces and at the higher levels, the pro grammes were synchronised to ensure maximum impact. Throughout the struggle the Left parties held separate discussions and deliberations. In short, the first priority was the unity of the Left and then synchronisation with the largest political force, th e Congress(I).

There was also popular pressure on the Congress(I) from the grassroots. Although we are aware that the Congress(I) is not committed in its opposition to the World Bank and its policies, we realised that the agitation was an indirect struggle against the Bank. Therefore we did not insist that the Congress(I) commit itself to a fight against the World Bank. However, the experience of the agitation made the Congress(I) realise that it could not escape criticising the World Bank. Ultimately the Congress(I) has come around to criticise the Bank's conditionalities and it has now demanded that the agreement with the Bank be scrapped.

You have alleged that the government used the might of the state machinery against the agitation. There have also been allegations about the arm-twisting of the media.

The World Bank is experimenting with Andhra Pradesh. We have also learnt many things in the process. The media have been used to propagate the World Bank's structural adjustment programmes. The media are also being used to suppress any criticism of the B ank. The TDP government's allocation of funds for the Public Relations Department increased from just about Rs.5 crores to about Rs.80 crores in a very short period. Most of this money is used to purchase the media. Pressure is exerted on managements of media organisations) to keep in check journalists who are critical of the government. Attacks by hired goondas on journalists have increased in recent months. In Samalkot, Kurnool and Vijayawada, cameramen of television channels have been attacked for co vering the protests. The editor of a prominent Telugu daily was removed under pressure from the government for his criticism of the tariff hike. The government has also exerted pressure on newspaper managements by withholding government advertisements.

During the 100 days of protests, the police resorted to lathicharge all over the State. Women protestors were humiliated and women police personnel were not always pressed into service. The police systematically let loose terror on the protestors. Police in plainclothes lathicharged them in complete violation of legal provisions and standing orders. The Telugu Sena, a gang of goons, attacked demonstrators with knives, razors, blades and other sharp weapons. The police did nothing to control this.

Do you see the August 28 incidents as some kind of a turning point in the struggle against economic reforms?

The movement started as a struggle against the power tariff increase. By August 28 it covered a wider gamut of issues: the World Bank was brought into the picture. People now understand that the price rise is because of the Bank-dictated policies. Althou gh there is a temporary setback in terms of not being able to force the government to roll back the increase, a whole new set of issues have opened up in the realm of public discourse. The people and political parties have learnt some lessons from the st ruggle. That has been the biggest achievement of the movement. We are happy that we have given a thrust to the resistance to economic reforms in India.

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