AGARTALA, India: A supporter of Indian National Congress lifts a burning tyre during in protest during a nationwide general strike against the petrol price hike in the capital of the northeastern state of Tripura yesterday. – AFP

NEW DELHI: Indians set tyres on fire, vandalized petrol stations and blocked roads and railways yesterday as opposition parties led nationwide demonstrations against rising fuel prices. The protests were called by the opposition Congress party led by Rahul Gandhi, who is looking to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in general elections expected in early 2019.

“Ever since the BJP came to power (in 2014) fuel prices have been going up. Prime Minister Modi has failed to deliver on his promises to the people,” Gandhi, 48, told a crowd in Delhi. “Your money is being looted… Hatred is being spread. Wherever you see, Indians are fighting one another,” said the scion of the long-powerful Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

Police and demonstrators scuffled in the central state of Madhya Pradesh – currently held by the BJP, but which goes to the polls this year – as protestors attacked a petrol station, television pictures showed. Similar incidents were reported in the financial hub of Mumbai and in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Congress party activists marched, blocked roads and disrupted trains in the eastern state of Odisha, while other opposition parties protested outside offices of oil marketing companies. Protesters also burnt tyres and blocked traffic in the north eastern state of Assam. Several people were arrested in Assam and West Bengal, officials said. Television footage showed protesters breaking car and bus windows in Patna, the capital of the northern state of Bihar.

India’s rupee hit a new record low of 72 to the dollar last week as emerging market currencies suffered losses. This has made India’s massive imports of oil, priced in dollars, more expensive. Further strain on the economy has come from the government’s surprise removal of vast quantities of cash from the system in 2016, and from a drive to simplify the tax code launched in 2017.

BJP accused its opponents of “unnecessarily politicizing” high fuel prices and the weakening currency, which it blamed on external factors such as Turkey’s economic crisis which affected emerging markets. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the country’s law minister, condemned the incidents of violence. “The BJP strongly believes that despite some momentary difficulties, the people of India do not support this protest,” he said in a televised address.

Taxes on petrol and diesel, which account for more than a third of retail fuel prices, are one of the biggest sources of income for the government, and an emotive issue for voters. Past governments have usually lowered taxes when international oil prices shot up, but Modi’s administration has made little concession so far.

A Mood of the Nation survey of 15,000 respondents in April and May showed Modi’s popularity rating dipping two percentage points from 2014 to 34 percent while Gandhi’s rose eight points to 24 percent. In a speech late on Sunday, Modi was in bullish mood nonetheless. “We have started our journey (towards general elections) with confidence. We enjoy the confidence of 1.25 billion people of India,” he said in the capital. “We do not see any challenge (from the opposition). Their allegations are based on falsehoods and web of lies… When they were in power they were a failure, and they are a failure even when they are in opposition.” – Agencies