14/09/2018 7:25 AM IST | Updated 16/09/2018 2:20 PM IST

Record Petrol, Diesel Prices Are Hurting Narendra Modi’s Middle-Class Voters

Could rising fuel inflation derail Narendra Modi’s propaganda machine?

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Petrol pump on Laxmi road to observe Bharat Band against the rise in fuel prices on September 10, 2018 in Pune, India.

NEW DELHI — Balvinder Singh said it had been a long time since his taxi service turned a profit.

"First came Uber and Ola, then came demonetization," Singh said, "Then came GST and now fuel prices are killing us," he said.

With petrol and diesel prices hitting a record high across the country, Singh's earnings from his taxies have halved over the past few weeks. Of late, he's been forced to dip into his savings to make loan payments on his vehicles.

Singh is not alone; surging fuel prices have hit families and businesses across the country. On 11 September, petrol prices in Mumbai hit Rs 88.26 per liter. While food prices stayed in check, fuel inflation rose to 8.47% in August (compared with 7.96% in July) as per the Central Statistics Office. On 13 September, petrol prices in Delhi hit Rs 81 per liter.

The opposition believes that runaway petrol and diesel prices will push voters to finally see through the Narendra Modi government's poor record of managing the economy.

"When you take your bike in the morning, and have to get petrol filled for Rs 83 a litre, it is a day-to day-frustration," said Kanhaiya Kumar, a former student leader who is now a member of the Communist Party of India. In an interview with HuffPost India, Kumar said the government was finally losing the perception battle in the face of mounting voter frustration.

A conversation with Singh, the taxi operator who voted for the BJP in 2014, seemed to bear this out.

"I don't think a lot of people in business that I know will vote for BJP," he said, adding he wouldn't either. "People's pockets have been hit, business is down, there is no income."

However, interviews with a cross-section of salaried employees and businessmen this week suggest many voters aren't sure who exactly to blame for the rising prices, and even those who pinned the blame on the government felt that a credible opposition was yet to emerge.

People's pockets have been hit, business is down, there is no income.

A Bharat bandh to protest high fuel prices, called by the Congress, received tepid support. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a key potential ally, blamed both the Congress and the BJP for the price rise.

The public conversation around petrol and diesel prices serves as a good example of how a disorganised opposition has failed to capitalise on the Modi government's failings.

The BJP recently took to Twitter to explain that the fuel price hike during its tenure was far less than that of the Congress. The BJP said that fuel prices jumped 20.5% between 2004 and 2009, and a startling 75.8% till 2014. In comparison, it claimed, fuel prices have increased only 13% since 2014, according to the BJP.

Petrol, GST, Demonetisation

Earlier this week, HuffPost India conducted ten interviews in Delhi to understand how people felt about rising fuel prices. Almost all of them said they were angry about the fallout of demonetization, GST and the rise in fuel prices on their lives and businesses. Almost all of them wanted the government to bring petrol under GST and to cut excise duty.

Of the ten, nine had voted for the BJP in 2014. Of these, three said they would not vote for the BJP in 2019, four were undecided and two would vote BJP again.

"No one like Modi has ever led this country." said 50-year-old Dalweer Singh, who remains a BJP supporter. While Dalweer works as a private driver, he doesn't own a car himself and said he was unaffected by the price rise. "Look, it takes time to improve the economy, but he has made India shine abroad. Now every country knows about India."

Ravi Kumar, a 21-year-old college student who rides a motorcycle, said that he paid for petrol from the money he earned designing websites. Even though he is having to shell out more money for fuel, Kumar would brook no criticism of Modi. "Everyone is talking about unemployment but what about the GDP going up to 8.2%? Modi is inspiring."

Look, it takes time to improve the economy, but he has made India shine abroad.

Only two interviewees felt they understood why fuel prices had risen so much.

Manoj Kumar, a bank loans salesman who traverses long distances every day—from Lajpat Nagar in Delhi to Manesar in Haryana, said he was planning to vote for the Congress. The 40-year-old gets reimbursed fuel worth Rs 5,000 every month and he isn't enjoying shelling out the difference.

"What acche din have come? Rahul Gandhi is still a child but I don't see any other choice but the Congress," said Manoj. "Actually, I am a salaried person so I was not hit so much by GST and demonetization, but the BJP did not fulfil its promises. We did not expect all promises to be met, but the government did not fulfil even 1%."

Parikshit Sawhney, who is waiting for an alternate leader to emerge, said, "I'm waiting for Rahul Gandhi to grow up." The 42-year-old, whose travel agency has shrunk to half its previous capacity, said, "The positive story about the economy that was spun is actually very very bad. For the middle class, the upper middle class and the lower middle class, urban businessmen, urban workers, they have not delivered anything."

On whether he and his friends were angry at the Modi government, Sawhney said, "There is no anger, there is grief."

Yet, Sawhney said he was impressed by how decisive the Modi government appeared, even if he disagreed with many of its decisions.

"You have a leader who takes decisions. In the second term of Manmohan Singh, no one was taking decisions. It was bad. Okay, we did demonetization, we did GST, good or bad, somebody took a decision, somebody took a call. It is very important to take decisions in leadership."

Citing schemes that provided gas connections, toilets and housing to the rural poor, both Sawhney and Kumar believe the BJP will have better luck seeking votes in the countryside. Kumar said, "The businessmen will be the downfall of the Modi government."

On whether he could see BSP chief Mayawati or Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee as prime minister, Sawhney said, "I don't see any emerging options. We actually don't need more politicians in this country. We definitely need more economists. There is no rationalization to this tax structure. We are in a double-taxation economy. What we earn, we spend tax on. What we spend, we pay tax on."

Ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, there was intense speculation about the BJP abolishing direct tax for citizens if it came to power.

We actually don't need more politicians in this country. We definitely need more economists. There is no rationalization to this tax structure.

Government needs to explain

Ankit Singh, who is visiting from Pune, would not say whether he was angry enough to turn against the BJP in the next election. But the 30-year-old bank manager, who has been using the metro in Gurgaon, talked furiously about how the prices had gone up from Rs 77 to Rs 88 per litre of petrol in the ten days since he had left Maharashtra.

For him, it was important that the government provide people answers. "They are not giving explanations, just excuses. And the people are just blindly believing their excuses," he said. "The other day I was watching television and Arun Jaitley said that it is not our currency that has become weak, but the dollar has become strong. How can he say such a thing?"

They are not giving explanations, just excuses. And the people are just blindly believing their excuses

Discussing his own research into the fuel price hike, Ankit said that he was reading that a barrel of oil was $127 dollars ten years ago.

"Now it is just $88 a barrel but the prices are still going up. I don't understand it. The government needs to explain," he said. "Another thing. Today, the price of petrol and diesel is almost the same, but just ten years ago, the cost of petrol used to be around Rs 70 and Rs 40 for diesel. How did it change? Are there some political issues? Maybe some situation in another country that we don't read about."

As Ankit shook his head, his friend volunteered, "Maybe it is because of the trade war between US and China."

To this, Ankit replied, "Recently, I thought India has started taking crude oil from Russia. The Prime Minister went to Russia. What has happened? The prices did not decline. We don't know what happened. We deserve an answer."

On whether he had joined the Bharat Bandh which the Congress organized to protest rising fuel prices, Ankit said, "This Bharat Bandh. It is just politics."

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