Accompanied by thousands of her supporters, West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress Chief Mamata Banerjee hit the streets of Kolkata this evening to protest against the steep petrol price hike effected on Wednesday. The West Bengal Chief Minister marched from her Assembly constituency of Jadavpur to Hazra in south Kolkata.
Ms Banerjee was also accompanied by Railway minister and her party's all-India general secretary Mukul Roy, as she walked briskly for five kilometres from Jadavpur to the Hazra crossing. Also in the procession were several state ministers like Partha Chatterjee, Firhad Hakim, Madan Mitra, Manish Gupta, besides deputy speaker Sonali Guha.
The Trinamool Congress workers carried posters demanding that the hike in petrol price be rolled back and shouted slogans against the UPA government's decision.
At the end of the march, the Trinamool chief directed her party workers to launch protest marches at booth and block-level in the state tomorrow.
Trinamool's Sobhandev Chattopadhyay told reporters that the party chief was the first leader in the country to take to the streets to protest the petrol price hike. "We are in the UPA alliance, but we have not signed any bond, he said.
"We are committed to the common minimum programme of the UPA, but Congress being the largest ally, did not bother to consult us, the second largest alliance partner on the decision to hike the petrol price. We have no option but to protest," Mr Chattopadhyay added.
Ms Banerjee was one of the quickest off the block to vocally protest when the hike of Rs. 6.28 plus taxes was announced on Wednesday. "We cannot accept the petrol price hike," she said. The government, she added, should not have allowed such an economic situation to come.
Ms Banerjee also made it clear that while her party the Trinamool Congress was committed to supporting the central government and would not pull out now as that would "create economic and political instability", it did not at all mean that they couldn't protest against what was wrong.
"We don't want political instability. We made a commitment and if we topple the government now, there will be political instability. We are not like the Left. But just because we aren't leaving, doesn't mean that we won't protest or we won't oppose," she said.
The Trinamool Congress chief also complained, once again, that her party was not consulted before the decision was taken. "It is unjust and unilateral. It was done without our knowledge...Parliament was in session till Tuesday. Why was this not brought up and discussed in Parliament?" she asked.
Reacting to Ms Banerjee's call for a protest march, Congress MP from Bengal, Adhir Chowdhary, asked her to follow the Goa model to bring down the prices of petrol in the state. "Bengal too can reduce the VAT on petrol the way other states like Goa have done. Mamata Banerjee can waive local taxes and give cheap petrol in the state," he said. The MP also added, "Why is Mamata Banerjee taking to the streets to protest petrol price hike? She should quit the UPA instead."
Besides Ms Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, another senior ally in the UPA - the DMK - has also opposed the petrol price hike and said that the government should reconsider and reduce it. "It is unfortunate, it will affect the salaried class, the common man," said the party's TR Baalu. It has also has announced "peaceful protests" in front of collector's offices across Tamil Nadu on May 30.
Sources say that Opposition parties and allies apart, the demand for a rollback has come even from within the Congress, which leads the UPA government at the Centre. They added that some leaders of the Congress too have said they did not know about the price rise.
But Oil Minister Jaipal Reddy on Friday sought to quash talk of an immediate partial rollback, saying there are no instant solutions. The minister also sought a few days to watch global trends and discuss the matter with states before coming up with a view.
The few days, he promised, "will be only a few days and not weeks or in infinity."
He explained the massive hike of Rs. 6.28 plus taxes as being necessitated by a double disaster - devaluation of rupee and increase in international prices of crude oil. He said despite rising prices globally, oil marketing companies had been unable to raise prices and had lost crores of rupees. In the last two months alone, Mr Reddy said, the companies had lost Rs. 2,300 crore only on petrol and were not compensated by the government.
The minister admitted that his government was under pressure from all political parties, including his own, the Congress, to withdraw the hike and appealed that "all parties in the country should work together and need to sacrifice for long-term good." He skirted questions on whether regulated oil products like diesel, LPG and kerosene would be raised.
India deregulated petrol prices in June 2010 but continues to subsidise kerosene, diesel and cooking gas to protect the poor from the impact of any inflation pressures. In the second half of 2011, oil companies began reflecting market realities more closely and raised petrol prices but were stopped from end-November on the request of the government - their majority shareholder - ahead of elections in some states. Petrol prices were last revised on December 1.
State-run oil companies have been losing Rs. 8000 crores per annum because they were being forced to sell petrol at subsidised rates.