- Protesters demand better prices, wages, new jobs
- Protest backed by opposition parties including Congress
- Modi faces tough re-election bid in 2019, state polls in months
NEW DELHI: Thousands of farmers and labourers paralysed the Indian capital on Wednesday in a protest against what they called the anti-people policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government, as opposition parties step up pressure ahead of key elections.
A sharp drop in commodity prices, stagnant wages and record fuel prices have dented Modi’s popularity in rural areas home to about two-thirds of India’s 1.3 billion people, and key to his hopes of winning a second term in next year’s general elections.
Traffic in many parts of central Delhi came to a halt as the protesters marched towards Parliament Street in the heart of the capital. Some of them, wearing red caps and waving red flags, sat on pavements as honking vehicles moved slowly past.
“This country’s farmers are very angry with the Modi government,” said Karan Singh, a 58-year-old rice grower from the northern breadbasket state of Haryana, dressed in traditional white clothes.
“We’re suffering losses and the government is not doing anything about it.”
Modi’s rural woes have been worsened by a failure to deliver on a promise of tens of millions of jobs for young people that helped him secure the largest mandate in three decades in 2014.
That vow has provided opposition parties their biggest stick to try and beat him with, in three big state elections looming this year.
“This historic rally…demanding better wages, more jobs, better prices for farm produce, end to privatisation, stopping changes in labour laws, marks a new stage in the struggle of working people,” the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which led the protest near parliament, said on social network Twitter.
Only an alliance of India’s working class and its peasants could help defeat a “fascistic onslaught”, said one of the party’s leaders, Surjya Kanta Mishra.
Congress, which ruled India for most of its independent history and lost power to Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, said it supported the “fight back” by farmers. It is banding with other opposition parties to take on the prime minister.
Federal farm minister Radha Mohan Singh said on Twitter the government was putting farmers first and working on initiatives such as easy credit to help meet Modi’s target of doubling their income by 2022.
In July, the government sharply hiked state-mandated prices for summer crops, including rice, that had been raised only by low single-digit figures during Modi’s first four years in office.
In June, vegetable prices jumped 10 percent in major cities after a strike by millions of farmers.
Some of Wednesday’s protesters, who arrived by bus and train from across the nation, were sceptical of the government’s efforts.
Asked about Modi’s plans to double farmers’ income, Singh, the Haryana rice cultivator, responded, “He can’t, and won’t, do it.”