New Delhi: A nationwide strike on Thursday in protest against policy changes by the Congress party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government evoked a mixed response across the country, but had little impact in the biggest cities of Delhi and Mumbai.
The ruling party, however, was kept guessing about the prospect of support from the Samajwadi Party (SP), on which it has been banking, after being reduced to a minority by the withdrawal of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) from the UPA over last week’s government measures—a Rs.5 per litre increase in diesel price, an annual cap on subsidized cooking gas at six cylinders per household and allowing overseas investment in multi-brand retail.
SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav joined the Left in the protest against the policy changes, brightening the prospects of an alternative front to Congress and the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the TMC was resolute about its withdrawal from the UPA.
The party’s ministers are to submit their resignations on Friday.
“We have already taken a collective decision. Our ministers will submit their resignation. Commitment is commitment. We have also sought an appointment with the honourable President tomorrow, if he gives time,” TMC leader and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee said in an apparent reference to plans to submit a letter withdrawing the support of the party’s 19 members of Parliament (MPs) from the government.
TMC has six ministers, including one of cabinet rank, in the UPA government.
The UPA said it would survive the TMC’s departure.
“We had enough friends yesterday, we have enough friends today. So, I don’t think why you should doubt our stability,” finance minister P. Chidambaram told reporters.
Added Rashid Alvi, Congress spokesperson: “The government is a stable government and will complete its full term.”
BJP president Nitin Gadkari, who termed the strike a success, said: “It’s a historic bandh. I hope that the government will take back the FDI decision and roll back the hike in diesel and (the move on) gas cylinders. If the government doesn’t roll back, we will intensify our agitation.”
The UPA is relying on support from the SP and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), but Yadav’s participation in Thursday’s protest has made the Congress jittery.
Reiterating that the SP, which has 22 MPs, was supporting the UPA in order to keep “communal forces” at bay, Yadav issued a veiled threat to the government.
“We will not tolerate price rise,” Yadav said. He also demanded that the government withdraw immediately “anti-people” decisions such as the diesel price increase, FDI in retail and the cap on gas cylinders.
If the government didn’t do so, Yadav strongly signalled that he would seek to build a political alternative.
“We will announce together a strategy to hold a big agitation” if the decisions weren’t reversed, Yadav said. Asked whether this would lead to a third front, he said: “What will be a bigger example than this?”
However, the SP deferred a meeting that had been scheduled for Thursday to decide on strategy.
“It has been postponed and it will happen in another four to five days,” said Mohan Singh, general secretary of the party. Singh refused to clarify the party’s position over extending support to the UPA.
Left party leaders demanded that the government withdraw its decisions, but were silent over a third front. A key Congress ally, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam also participated in the shut down.
Yadav is trying to get the best of both worlds, said A.K. Verma, professor of political science, Church College, Kanpur.
“Destabilizing the UPA government today is not in the interest of Mulayam Singh. At the state level, he wants to be with the UPA and take advantage of being with the Central government,” Verma said. The aim of joining the protests is to keep alive prime ministerial ambitions.
BJP senior party leader Ravi Shankar Prasad dismissed the emergence of a third front.
Gadkari said the BJP will intensify its agitation, but hasn’t decided to move a non-confidence motion against the government. He didn’t rule out the possibility of seeking a special session of Parliament to discuss the FDI policy. The Left parties are also keen on the same.
NDA convenor Sharad Yadav wanted the Congress to remove Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram and Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia to “understand the miseries of the people”.
In New Delhi, protesters burnt effigies of the Prime Minister and tried to get shops and markets to close. Public transport vehicles were fewer than usual, though there were reports of traffic snarls in some parts of the city due to the protests. The police, deployed in large numbers, detained about 20 protesters for obstructing traffic. In Ghaziabad and Faridabad on the outskirts of the national capital, activists tried to disrupt rail services.
There was little response in Mumbai owing to the ongoing Ganesh Chathurthi festival across Maharashtra. The Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena kept away from the strike due to the festival. Life in Kolkata and elsewhere in West Bengal was disrupted. Though airport services were normal, around 240 train services were disrupted across the country in Eastern Railway and South Eastern Railway, officials said.
Shubham Shivang and PTI contributed to this story.