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“Bharat Bandh” Breaks Out Over Indian Fuel Prices

Indian political opposition parties capitalized on discontentment over rising fuel prices on Monday by participating in a nationwide strike known as “Bharat Bandh.” Certain experts believe that the protests represent a significant political play against Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he prepares for the nation’s general election next year.

Protests occurred in the states of Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and Assam. Violence broke out in Patna, Bihar’s eastern capital, and buses and trains were halted in Prime Minister Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Additionally, many businesses and schools were shut down during the day amidst standstills in traffic. Elsewhere, the results of the protests were less severe, though many who participated in the protests called for a complete operational shutdown.

Opposition groups successfully utilized mounting anger over India’s ever-increasing fuel prices to coordinate the nationwide protests. This allowed citizens to channel frustration over the depreciation of the rupee into action against Prime Minister Modi and his ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

One such group is Congress, India’s main opposition party. Its president, Rahul Gandhi, blamed Prime Minister Modi and his policies directly for the sharp increase in fuel prices.

Gandhi remarked: “In the entire country, the prices of fuel, gas are on a constant rise, but Prime Minister Modi remains in silence. The rupee value has never been this weak in the past 70 years. Farmers, laborers see no light at the end of the tunnel.”

Fuel prices have been a source of contention for the past few weeks, as they have steadily increased across each of India’s states. They have risen approximately 15% this year alone, mainly due to the depreciating value of the Indian rupee. Though the government could potentially stabilize the situation by slashing fuel taxes, doing so would decrease government revenues substantially, as the excise duty and additional taxes associated with fuel prices are expected to earn the government 2.5 trillion rupees by March 2019.

According to a Reuters poll of economic analysts conducted earlier this year, rising oil prices represent the greatest threat to India’s economic growth.

Over 20 opposition parties participated in the Bharat Bandh, expressing similar dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Modi’s policies. In order to counter the quickening depreciation of the Indian rupee, opposition figures demand that the government cut the duty on imports and standardize the price of fuel across the country by including it under the national goods and services tax.

Though protesters in New Delhi openly chanted: “Narendra Modi: Down! Down!” political spokespeople for the BJP party rejected what they termed as “unnecessary politicising” of the fuel price increase.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad attributed the price increase to external factors that are “beyond the control of the government.” He lamented how the protests put people’s lives at risk, calling attention to an incident in which a traffic standstill led to the death of a two-year-old girl whose ambulance was unable to push down a road blocked by protesters.

Prime Minister Modi must face the mounting threat that opposition parties pose to his reelection campaign. In order to do that, however, he must first establish how to reconcile his initial campaign promise of creating more jobs with an economic reality mired in raised prices for resources and a depreciating currency.