Much of this increase has happened in the last one year alone. In this one year, people have lost jobs and incomes, and inflation has soared. That’s a double whammy: fuel getting expensive just when people have less money in their pockets. In an economy where the official growth rate contracted by 7.5 per cent, this should have been a matter of huge public concern, even outrage and uproar.
Indians, however, seem so calm about it that one could come up with trite Oriental cliches about India. You know, Indians take all suffering, believe in karma, and so on.
Yet just 6-7 years ago, Indians seemed to be very angry about high fuel prices. In fact, it was one of the reasons that the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-2 government was voted out of power in 2014. How is it that the very thing that used to make us angry then doesn’t make us angry now? What a silly thing this, public opinion, inexplicable like the stock market.
Either the public is affected by high fuel prices, or it is not. Either public opinion was lying before 2014, or it is lying now. What gives?
Crystallising public opinion
How do we know that fuel prices were a big issue before 2014? Two things gave us this impression back then: the media and the opposition. Today both are silent. The media has the excuse of government pressure. What is the opposition’s excuse?
Before 2014, fuel price hike was one of the strongest issues that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) used to take up. There was a bike rally organised by the Delhi unit of the BJP in 2013, led by senior party leaders, that drove to Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit’s residence. Party workers broke barriers and tried to enter the CM’s residence, resulting in the police using water cannons. Enough and more visuals were created for the media.
If it ain’t captured in a photo, it ain’t public opinion.
Today, if you ask an opposition leader why they aren’t protesting against the fuel price hike, they’ll say what’s the point, the media won’t show it anyway. If you ask media professionals why it is so silent about fuel price hikes, they’ll say what to do, the Congress is doing nothing about it.
We know that public opinion is not a given; it has to be ‘crystalised’. In a country where the conventional wisdom is that corruption is not an issue since everyone is corrupt anyway, the Lokpal movement made corruption an issue. Similarly, fuel prices were an issue — appeared to be an issue — because the issue was crystalised, turned into protest events with visuals that capture public attention. Such visuals make it difficult even for the most hostile media to ignore. That’s why UPA-2 often had to roll back fuel price hikes.
The BJP’s fuel price hike protests would include ‘jail bharo’ or voluntary detention, and a Bharat Bandh every now and then. Their Bharat Bandhs, or all-India strikes, were so large-scale that even global media took note. Over a Bharat Bandh in 2010, a foreign reporter noted: “Protesters have blocked trains and buses, set barricades of burning tires and clashed with police….some leaders of the opposition party were arrested for acts of civil disobedience. The ruling Congress Party says it has to end subsidies on fuel as a way to contain soaring government deficits….”
Those were the days when we used to have “Life hit as parties protest fuel price hike” kind of headlines. Life is no longer ‘hit’ as a lazy opposition waits for the media to do their job.
Even if the opposition doesn’t articulate people’s issues, the people do articulate in elections. In 2020, I met voters in the Bihar assembly election who complained about rising prices of essential commodities, though strangely blaming the Bihar state government for it.
In Modi’s first term, one of his biggest achievements was low inflation. In fact, the Modi government has been reluctant to put too much money in the hands of farmers precisely for fear of food inflation. No central government has ever returned to power despite high inflation.
High fuel prices don’t directly hit the poorest people. They hit the middle class, which is anyway enraptured by Narendra Modi. But the indirect impact of high fuel prices on overall inflation will also eventually hit the poor. Thankfully for the Modi government, inflation seems to be coming under control again.
The government has a lot of room to cut fuel prices since almost two-thirds of it is tax. The government has been using taxes on fuel to make up for its revenue losses as economic growth has turned into a recession. This means that a high-pitched protest on fuel prices by the opposition can easily result in a small political victory for them. Why they don’t do it is a mystery best explained by them.
The author is a contributing editor. Views are personal.