New Delhi: The Congress today gave a symbolic start to the Bharat Bandh, or nationwide protest, from Delhi’s Rajghat to corner Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government over fuel prices followed by a protest march. Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has just returned from a Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, led the march.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), however, targeted opposition parties led by the Congress for “creating an atmosphere of fear" among the common people with the Bharat Bandh.

According to the Congress, key opposition parties—including the Left parties, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), Aam Aadmi Party, Telugu Desam Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagha—have extended their support to the Bharat Bandh.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi with senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad and others during ‘Bharat Bandh’ protest march against fuel price hike and depreciation of the rupee, at Rajghat in New Delhi on Monday. Photo: PTI
Congress President Rahul Gandhi with senior leader Ghulam Nabi Azad and others during ‘Bharat Bandh’ protest march against fuel price hike and depreciation of the rupee, at Rajghat in New Delhi on Monday. Photo: PTI

The 9am-3pm Bharat Bandh—one of its kind pitched by the Congress in the past four years over fuel prices—is expected to hit basic services, especially transportation in several parts of the country, and witness several demonstrations outside petrol pumps.

After the Rajghat visit, the Congress has started a march towards Delhi Gate area, led by Gandhi and senior party leaders Ashok Gehlot, Motilal Vora, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Anand Sharma and opposition leaders, including NCP’s Tariq Anwar, RJD’s Manoj Jha, N.K. Premachandran of Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and Jayant Chaudhary of Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD).

They leaders congregated outside a petrol pump near Ramlila Maidan in New Delhi, where the addressed the crowds on the issue of rising fuel prices. Gandhi was joined by former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi and NCP chief Sharad Pawar.

“PM Modi keeps making promises. In 2014, a lot of people believed him and his government was formed. Four years have passed now and everyone clearly knows what is it that this government has done...," said Gandhi. “The value of rupee has never been so bad in 70 years, petrol prices are more than 80 rupees, diesel prices are a little less than 80 and gas cylinder prices have also increased."

“It is a matter of happiness that opposition parties are sitting here together. It is a reflection that our thoughts are the same, we will come together and defeat the BJP. But what is sad is, what is making the people sad is, that sadness is in farmers, women, youth and us but it is not there in the BJP. We promise you that we will come together and defeat the BJP," Gandhi said.

Singh also attacked the government on fulfilling its promises. “The need of the hour is that all political parties leave behind their old issues and come together at this hour. We need to leave behind small things and be together," the former prime minister said.

The BJP, however, claimed the people are not supporting the Bharat Bandh.

“It’s unnerving the Congress and opposition have to resort to violence to overawe the people of India. An atmosphere of fear is being created. When people’s support is not there, they are resorting to aggression," union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told reporters today, adding that the government stands with the concerns of the people and that the fuel prices were high due to crisis in international market.

The protest organized by the left front in Delhi saw members of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), including senior leader Atishi, come out in support. Senior AAP leader and Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh attended the protest organized by the Congress at Ramlila Maidan. The two parties are in opposition in the national capital.

“People in the country are stressed over the rising petrol prices in the country. The rupee is falling. We all need to come together on these issues," Singh said.

The Left parties, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, have also called for an all-India bandh to protest against the slowdown of the economy due to rising fuel prices, agrarian crisis, inflation and unprecedented fall of the rupee.

A joint protest of the Left parties is being held at the Jantar Mantar today. They plan to hold similar protests across the country as well. “We all must protest in the strongest manner to force this callous Narendra Modi government to reduce fuel prices by cutting excise duty drastically," said Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the CPM.

Meanwhile, the call for Bharat Bandh has led to a near total shutdown in Kerala, a state that is still reeling with the flood damages. Despite the assurances of the political parties to exclude flood-hit areas, the Bharat Bandh has impacted ongoing relief and reconstruction works in flood-hit regions, according to local reports. Government offices, hospitals, among others are seeing a low turnout, regional news channel Manorama News reported. Public transport buses have largely kept off the roads and shops and commercial establishments have downed shutters, it said.

In Kerala, the bandh has become a rare one to have observed by both the ruling communist coalition Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led opposition United Democratic Front (UDF). Both fronts, though, are observing it separately.The impact on the flood relief has led to sharp criticism against the bandh by sections of the civic society in Kerala. In protest, V.D. Satheeshan, Congress MLA from Paravoor in Ernakulam district, which saw heavy damage during the floods, said he will not pay heed to the bandh call.

In Kolkata, the Monday morning traffic was relatively thinner, but no disruption was reported from anywhere in the city, the city police said. The dominant Trinamool Congress (TMC) is not supporting the Bharat Bandh, and the state government has announced compensation if cars and passenger vehicles are vandalized. TMC is going take out a rally on Monday in protest against the jump in fuel prices.

In the BJP-Shiv Sena -ruled Maharashtra, the Congress-sponsored bandh has been supported by the NCP, Left parties, Bahujan Samaj Party, and even the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena. The Shiv Sena, however, has decided not to participate in the bandh saying the opposition parties have “woken up" late over price rise and issues concerning people. “We will see the strength of the opposition. Once all of them have tired out, the Shiv Sena will resume its protest," Sena MP Sanjay Raut said on Sunday.

In Goa, ruled by a BJP-led coalition, the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee has decided not to hold Goa bandh in view of the Ganesh festival but the partly would put up posters and fliers all over the state protesting the high prices of petrol and diesel.

The Bharat Bandh call against rising fuel prices evoked mixed response in the two Telugu-speadistates of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, with activists taking to roads and preventing buses from plying in certain districts and cities.

Districts like West Godavari and Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh witnessed many activists from the Congress and Left parties, which also have a Bandh call on the same issue, taking to streets to ensure that the bandh call is successful. In Telangana, bus services continued as usual in Hyderabad, except in the outskirts where many Congress leaders and workers staged protests. Reports from districts said that the bandh was partially implemented in places like Karimnagar.

Aniek Paul in Kolkata, Pretika Khanna in New Delhi, Abhiram Ghadyalpatil in Mumbai, Nidheesh M./K. n Bengaluru and Yunus Lasania in Hyderabad contributed to the story.

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