Angry demonstrators disrupted trains yesterday and forced some shops and schools to close in a partly successful national strike protesting a government decision to cut fuel subsidies and open India’s huge retail market to foreign companies.
Political backlash against the economic reform package presented by the Cabinet last week has left Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition scrambling to shore up its support and prevent early elections.
Some government allies have joined opposition parties in throwing their support behind the protests, which closed many schools and kept commercial trucks off the roads. However, many shops and businesses remained open, and the impact of the protest was barely felt in the main cities of Mumbai and New Delhi.
However, in a signal that the government was on shaky ground, many of the protests in Uttar Pradesh state were led by the Samajwadi Party, which has been supporting the government from outside the fragile ruling coalition. The party said it would meet later yesterday to determine what action to take, but has been extremely critical of the reform package.
Top ministers downplayed any talk of a teetering government.
“We have enough friends today, we had enough friends yesterday ... so I don’t see any reason why you should doubt our stability,” Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram told reporters.
In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states, protesters blocked railroad tracks. Some burned an effigy of Singh on the tracks, while others carried signs reading “Go Back Wal-Mart,” a reference to the US retail giant expected to enter the Indian market under the new regulations.
The opposition stronghold of Jammu was mostly shut.
In central Delhi, thousands joined protests demanding the government back down.
In a bit of street theater common to Indian demonstrations, about 2,000 people in Delhi marched to a nearby police station and demanded to be detained. Among those who got themselves arrested was Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who walked into the station surrounded by his government-provided security detail.
Indian Law Minister Salman Khurshid said the protesters were only hurting the economy they claimed to be defending.
“I think they’ve shown their point, they’ve given their point of view, they’ve shown their protest,” he said. “Now let us get back to work, back to our factories, back to our shops, back to our offices, schools and colleges.”
Singh, who came under intense criticism in recent months for presiding over a corrupt and paralyzed government, stunned the country with last week’s raft of reforms. The government announced a reduction in massive subsidies for diesel fuel and cooking gas. It also opened up the country’s enormous retail sector to foreign competitors, allowed local airlines to sell stakes to foreign carriers and pledged to sell off chunks of four state-run companies.
“It’s a very difficult decision for the government,” Indian Information Minister Ambika Soni said. “We have tried to assure everybody that there was no other way except to take that decision to keep the economy on track.”
Opponents said the fuel hike would spark higher inflation and hurt the country’s poor. They said opening up the retail sector to foreign giants would crush the nation’s millions of small retail shops.