United by rising fuel prices and sinking rupee, opposition takes on Modi govt

New Delhi: A nationwide strike to protest rising prices, especially of fuel, affected life in at least eight states across India, while causing barely a ripple in others on September 10 as opposition leaders came together in the capital to target the Narendra Modi government.
Leaders of 16 opposition parties gathered at a fuel pump near New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan where Congress president Rahul Gandhi said the Prime Minister’s policies were dividing the country and asked why Modi was “silent on the issues of price rise, farmer suicides, atrocities against women and unemployment”.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attributed the rise in oil prices to global factors and accused the Opposition of resorting to “dance of violence and game of death” to enforce the shutdown. The Congress said the shutdown had been successful.
Finance ministry officials, who asked not to be named, cited inflation data under the UPA-I and UPA-II (5.8% and 10.4%) and said inflation under the current government (2014 to date) is 4.7%. They added that the current inflation is well within the “statutory target of 4% plus or minus 2%”.
On September 10, the price of petrol rose by 23 paise to Rs 80.73 a litre, and the price of diesel by 22 paise to Rs 72.83 a litre in Delhi – both now at their costliest ever. In Andhra Pradesh, chief minister Chandrababu Naidu announced that his government has cut the state-levied Value Added Tax by Rs 2 per litre on every litre of petrol and diesel sold. This follows a similar move in Rajasthan, which is set to hold elections later this year.
The value of rupee too hit unprecedented levels, falling to 72.67 per dollar before settling to close at 72.45. Stock markets tanked more than 1% to close at three-week lows on Monday following a global slide in equities due to concerns worries a looming trade war.
The worst of the strike was felt in Bihar, Karnataka and Kerala. In Bihar, protesters blocked roads and trains as businesses and schools stayed shut. Some protesters also carried out vandalism and arson, and a two-year-old girl died after her ambulance did not purportedly reach a hospital due to the blocked roads. Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad alluded to the death to criticize the opposition’s strike.
In Karnataka, offices were shut and bus services were stopped. Sporadic incidents of attacks on private and government vehicles and shops were reported from a few places in Kerala, where the shutdown was for a longer 12-hour period as compared to the 9am-3pm elsewhere.
Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Arunachal, Telangana and Assam were other states where the shutdown had some effect. The strike did not have much impact in the national capital or states such as Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal or Mizoram.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had till September 8 refused to join the Congress-led agitation, shared the stage with opposition parties. United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were among those present at the New Delhi protest.
The Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) organized their protests in Uttar Pradesh while the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India held demonstrations at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. On the eve of the strike, the Congress claimed the support of 21 parties in all.
Gandhi, who returned from the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra on September 9, paid tributes to Mahatma Gandhi at the memorial at Rajghat before leading a 1.8-km protest march.
“In 2014, Modi had made promises to the people of the country, youth, farmers and women, assuring them of jobs and their safety. People believed in him and helped form his government,” Gandhi said. “Four years on, people are clearly seeing what he has done.”
Gandhi blamed the higher fuel prices and a falling rupee currency on the Prime Minister’s policies. “Modi used to say that nothing has happened in 70 years. He is right. What he did in four years had not happened in 70 years. Wherever you see, Indians are fighting one another. They divide people – one religion with another, one caste with other and one state against another,” he said.
“The rupee has never has been weaker in 70 years. Farmers see no light at the end of the tunnel. Only 15-20 big industrialists are flourishing,” he said. Gandhi urged other opposition parties to unite to defeat the BJP. “From here, we promise that we will work together to remove the BJP.”
Former Prime Minister Singh too urged opposition parties to shed their differences and unite for the Lok Sabha elections due in 2019. “Circumstances show that the situation has gone beyond control now. Farmers, businessmen, youth are facing crises in their respective fields. The government has failed miserably in fulfilling its promises,” Singh said.
Separately, while speaking to reporters, Union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said people were facing “momentary difficulty” due to increasing petrol and diesel prices but that “they understand that this was due to factors beyond the control of the central government”. “It is a problem whose solution is not in our hands.”
He the oil prices had gone down after the BJP government came to power in May 2014.
“We are standing with people in their problem. We are trying to redress the issue and will do that,” Prasad said.
The BJP leader said the shutdown was not being backed by the people. “That is unnerving the Congress and other opposition parties. Their resort to violence is designed to overawe the people of India. An atmosphere of fear is being created,” he said.
Asked if the government could reduce excise duty to bring down prices of petrol and diesel, Prasad said cuts were made last year. “The states too can cut down taxes levied by them, but it should be left to their wisdom as they also spend money on welfare schemes.”
The finance ministry officials said that while taxes are an important “revenue stream” for the government so as to build “world class infrastructure”, run social welfare schemes and eradicate poverty”, the NDA has given relief to taxpayers in each of its Budgets. They added that apart from local levies on fuel, states also received 42% of the centre’s revenue receipts under the current revenue sharing formula.

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