Thousands of Indians rallied under key opposition leader Rahul Gandhi over soaring unemployment and rising food and fuel prices, with the former Congress party chief attacking Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for failing to address issues facing the people.
Gandhi accused Modi of pursuing policies benefitting big business groups at the expense of small and medium industries and poor farmers and workers, adding that people were being affected by unemployment as well as price rise.
“Narendra Modiji asks what has Congress done in 70 years? I will say this, that in 70 years, Congress has not shown such price rise to the country,” he said during his speech at Ramlila Ground in the capital, New Delhi.
He said the government is weakening the country by creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred, in reference to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) policy of Hindu-Muslim polarisation.
“Together we will defeat the ideology of the BJP and the RSS,” he said, referring to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh – the Hindu supremacist organisation that is the BJP’s ideological mentor.
The prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and essential food items like wheat have shot up 40-175 percent since Modi came to power eight years ago, according to the Congress leader.
He said Modi has been working for the benefit of two big industrialists, without naming them. The two key corporate groups were running India’s ports, airports, oil refineries, information technology sector and big media houses, he said.
He accused Modi of creating two Indias: “one which belongs to the poor where no dream could be accomplished, and the other of a few big businessmen where every dream can be achieved”.
The Modi government, however, has defended its policies, saying it has provided millions of people with toilets, cooking gas connections, drinking water, bank accounts, free health insurance and homes since it first came to power in 2014.
Last month, the central bank hiked interest rates to curb inflation.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the government’s handling of the economy in Parliament and said there was zero probability of India slipping into recession despite battling the COVID-19 pandemic and supply-chain disruptions caused by the ongoing Ukrainian conflict.
The rally came three days before the start of Gandhi’s 3,500km (2,185 miles) Bharat Jodo Yatra – a nationwide campaign for unity – covering Indian cities, towns and villages over the next five months.
The objective is to win people’s support ahead of two key state legislature elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh state that are likely to affect the country’s next national elections due in 2024.
Swapan Dasgupta, a lawmaker from the BJP, said in his blog on Sunday that since losing power in 2014, the Congress, once the default party of Indians, has “meandered its way from crisis to crisis, losing election after election and being a mute spectator to the desertion of important leaders”.
The Congress is also finding it difficult to find a successor to ailing Sonia Gandhi as the party president, with her son, Rahul, quitting the post following the party’s debacle in the 2019 national elections.
The opposition has been infuriated by the government’s decision last month to impose a tax on packed milk, yoghurt, cheese, buttermilk, packed rice, flour and wheat. The government earlier raised fuel prices.
India’s economy, Asia’s third largest, had been recovering from a pandemic slump. Multiple waves of COVID-19 outbreaks have affected India’s large informal sector, with unemployment rising to nearly 8.5 percent in August, according to data from the think-tank Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy.
With e-commerce registering a surge since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, the medium and small-scale industries are finding it difficult to compete with larger corporations with deeper pockets to meet capital requirements to tide over distress caused by the pandemic.
India’s economy grew by 13.5 percent in the April-June quarter from a year earlier, the fastest pace in a year, according to official data released on Wednesday. The jump in growth came on the back of a boost in agriculture and manufacturing as pandemic curbs eased.