The call for Bharat Bandh on Monday against rising fuel prices evoked mixed response. While the Congress Party and a few smaller groups had called for Bharat Bandh on Monday, the Left parties organized their own protest, refusing to join the Congress-led street action. However, banks and government offices functioned normally. Yet, in some places, such as Mumbai, the fear of strong arm tactics by local groups made people shutter down their establishments. However, it will be wrong for the government to infer from the less-than-enthusiastic response to the bandh that the ordinary people are not hurt by the inordinate rise in the price of petrol, diesel and other fuels.
They are. Smaller parties joining the protest too indicated that everyone is keen to tap the popular anger against high fuel prices. In Delhi, the clutch of opposition leaders who addressed a modest crowd at the Ramlila Maidan on Monday hammered home the point that at Rs 80-plus a liter of petrol, it had begun to pinch the common man. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used the occasion to try and bind the opposition parties together to challenge the Modi Government, arguing that the high fuel prices had ‘crossed all limits.’ Leaders of parties like the NCP, RJD, JD(S), DMK, MNS, etc, joined the bandh while the Shiv Sena, the TMC, BJD and AAP, steered cleared of it. Meanwhile, despite the protest bandh there was no indication that the government planned to roll back the central and local taxes and levies to provide relief to the common man. Petrol sold for Rs. 87.89 and diesel for Rs 77.09 a liter in Mumbai on Sunday while in Delhi the corresponding figures were Rs 80.50 and Rs 72.61. Prices of petrol and diesel have been traditionally highest in the country in Mumbai due to local levies.
The Government was reluctant to forgo revenue required for continuing huge infrastructure spending in the election year despite the high fuel prices. A Rupee- one cut in excise duty means a loss of Rs 13,000 crore to the exchequer in a full year. Nor have the State governments shown any inclination to cut the local levies, though the Rajasthan Government on Sunday announced a four percent cut in levies on petrol and diesel. Rajasthan is set to elect a new assembly later this year. Rising crude prices globally and a stronger dollar explain the distress at the petrol pumps. A depreciating currency seemed to have been checked by the RBI intervention on Friday, with the rupee crawling back to below 72 after hitting a record high of 72.11 against the dollar. A senior Union Finance Ministry official sought to talk up the rupee, saying that there was no need for panic and the RBI had a large cushion of forex to meet any contingency. A panic response on the rupee or on fuel prices can be ruled out at this juncture in spite the Opposition bid to up the ante.