NEW DELHI (AP) — Thousands of Indians rallied Sunday under key opposition Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, who launched a scathing attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government over the rise skyrocketing unemployment and rising food and fuel prices in the country.
Gandhi accused Modi of pursuing policies that benefit big business groups at the expense of small and medium industries and poor farmers and workers.
He also said the government was creating an atmosphere of fear and hatred, referring to tensions between Hindus and Muslims.
He said the prices of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and essential food items like wheat have soared 40-175% since Modi came to power eight years ago.
Without naming business leaders, Gandhi said two key groups ran India’s ports, airports, oil refineries, information technology sector and mainstream media.
The rally took place at the Ramlila Ground in New Delhi, which is used for religious festivals, major political meetings and entertainment events.
The Modi government claims to have provided millions of people with toilets, gas hookups, clean water, bank accounts, free health insurance and housing.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman defended the government’s handling of the economy in parliament and said there was no likelihood of India falling into recession despite battling the COVID-19 pandemic and the supply chain disruptions caused by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
The rally took place three days before the start of Gandhi’s 3,500 kilometer (2,185 mile) walking tour covering Indian cities, towns and villages over the next five months.
The aim is to win the support of the people ahead of two key parliamentary elections in Modi’s home state of Gujarat and the state of Himachal Pradesh, which are likely to impact the upcoming national elections. of the country planned for 2024.
Swapan Dasgupta, a lawmaker from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party, said on his blog on Sunday that since he lost power to the BJP in 2014, the Congress, once India’s default party, has “snaked through crisis”. in crisis, losing election after election and silent spectator of the desertion of important leaders”.
Congress is also struggling to find a successor to ailing Sonia Gandhi as party chair, with her son, Rahul, leaving 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 packaged curd, cheese, buttermilk, packaged rice, flour and wheat. The government earlier raised fuel prices.
India’s economy, Asia’s third-largest, was recovering from a pandemic crisis. Multiple waves of COVID-19 outbreaks have impacted India’s vast informal sector, with unemployment reaching nearly 8.5% in August, according to data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy think tank.
With e-commerce registering an upsurge since the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, small and medium-sized industries are finding it difficult to compete with larger companies with deeper pockets to meet the capital needs to deal with the distress caused by the pandemic.
India’s central bank forecast inflation of 6.7% for this fiscal year and raised its key rate by 50 basis points to 5.4%, its third hike since May.
The economy grew 8.7% in the prior fiscal year after contracting 6.6% in fiscal 2020-21. India’s fiscal year runs from April to March.
Associated Press video reporter Shonal Ganguly contributed to this report.
Ashok Sharma, Associated Press