5 MARCH 2016
High stakes in the Assembly polls
With Chief Election Commissioner Nasim Zaidi announcing the election schedule for West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam and Puducherry, the campaign for a most intriguing cluster of Assembly elections can be said to have begun. Taken together, these four States and one Union Territory do not carry spectacular weight for the ruling BJP at the Centre. The party would obviously be anxious to build upon its Lok Sabha showing in Assam, and wrest power in the State from the Congress, which has ruled since 2001. The BJP has named Sarbananda Sonowal as its chief ministerial candidate, as part of a strategy to give its campaign focus and avoid exposing Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the kind of direct political face-off that its adversaries exploited in the Bihar Assembly elections. The BJP has also finalised a tie-up with the Asom Gana Parishad and the Bodoland People’s Front. For the BJP, Assam has long been a cherished prize, and it has always seen itself to be in with a chance, given the State’s ethnic and communal fault lines. But the coming election has more significance as it would test the party’s capacity to claim the terrain marked on its 2014 general election victory map. After the stumbles in the Delhi and Bihar elections, Assam would in part determine whether the ‘Modi wave’ of two years ago was just a singular event, or whether it is a realistic indicator of the party’s potential to extend its geographical reach that demands of the Prime Minister to be a constant campaigner.
The BJP’s ambitions will obviously be limited in the other poll-bound States. Yet, it is in these face-offs that implications for its government at the Centre and its prospects in future Assembly elections may be found. The 2014 ‘Modi wave’ gathered momentum in large measure because of a scattered opposition to the BJP. Its Bihar setback in 2015 was on account of the coming together of parties opposed to the BJP. The alliances that are being formed for the elections are not as natural as Bihar’s, and should they succeed in forging a durable understanding, the prospects of large chunks of the anti-BJP vote getting pooled would grow. That there is a demand for an informal understanding between the Left parties and the Congress in West Bengal even as they stare down each other in Kerala may indicate, first, opposition unity against the Trinamool Congress — but such arrangements would foreshadow greater anti-BJP consolidation among parties in Parliament and outside. That the BJP, which during different periods shared power at the Centre with both the DMK and the AIADMK, now has no leading regional party with it in Tamil Nadu hints at the uncertain prospects it faces in finding more support in the Rajya Sabha. The learning is for the Narendra Modi government to absorb: that the polarising strategy of the Sangh Parivar and even some of the Union Ministers will make the task of governing India increasingly difficult.
A better deal for bus commuters
In 2014-15, India added nearly 20 million vehicles, mainly two-wheelers, but also two million cars, vans and so on to the existing 172 million registered motor vehicles. Several million more have been added since, as public transport remains inadequate. Personal transport has now reached saturation limit in the cities, resulting in gridlock, rising air pollution, lost productivity and ill-health. The Union Budget for 2016-17 has made a timely intervention at such an inflection point, with the move to expand the public transport system. The Motor Vehicles Act is to be amended to open up the passenger segment, and more entrepreneurs will be able to operate bus services. It will be up to the States, though, to accept the new liberalised regulatory system. Any measure to modernise India’s public transport and help the commuter should be welcomed. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is on target when he talks of greater investment, employment and multiplier effects for the economy stemming from such a move. The law enabling State road transport undertakings dates back to 1950, and many States have failed to progressively augment their operations after opting for full or partial nationalisation, especially in the cities. Private operators, on the other hand, have rapidly increased their share of the total number of buses. The Budget proposal to open up the sector has the potential to reverse the effects of the neglect and obsolescence.
Regulation is often seen as the obstacle that has affected the growth of bus transport. Yet, a scheme of the kind that the Budget proposes cannot run without a sound regulatory framework, if the goal is to remove erstwhile monopolies and introduce greater competition even in those States where private provision in urban and inter-city services already exists. Optimally, a system should lay down standards, identify areas of operation, fix prices and enable participation by entrepreneurs. As the National Transport Development Policy Committee 2013 said in its report, there is a need for a strategy panel at the national and State levels. This is necessary to take a comprehensive view of rail, road, waterway and non-motorised modes. On the question of encouraging private sector participation in bus services, the experience of London is worth studying: routes are tendered as per schedules, fares are fixed by the city government, and buses are run by franchisee operators who are paid according to mileage. What stands out in this model is the use of intelligent transport systems — of the kind the new taxi companies in India use — to determine whether the contractor is adhering to schedules, and to analyse demand-supply patterns. For passengers, they provide efficient real-time service information. India’s bus transport system lacks the wherewithal to make such studies using massive amounts of data as it is technologically outdated. Buses are also unpopular because they are not ergonomically designed as per the national bus code. A renaissance in bus services is possible, but not without modern design standards and service-level benchmarking that are ensured through strict enforcement.