Allies not on board; even Congress-ruled States unhappy; Jaipal called back from Turkmenistan to attend EGoM meet
An embarrassed and unhappy Congress, faced with countrywide protests against the massive hike in petrol prices, expressed the hope on Thursday that a way out would be found. “The party is hopeful that some kind of a modus vivendi involving the Central government, the State governments and the oil companies will be arrived at,” party spokesman Manish Tewari said, adding: “We are hopeful that the government would find a way out to provide relief to the common man.”
But with Indian Oil Corporation Chairman R.S. Butola (who took all questions on the issue with the government taking the line it had nothing to do with the price hike as petroleum prices had been de-regulated) ruling out a rollback at the moment as there was neither a “proposal,” nor a “situation” nor indeed had any of the “stakeholders” asked the oil companies to reduce prices, the situation looked grim. Even though he added that if international prices of crude came down, the benefit would be passed on to the consumer.
But as the Congress was wringing its hands, a day after the oil companies announced the highest-ever hike in the price of petrol, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government did not get the opportunity to get key allies — the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) — on board as representatives of all three parties were not present at the thinly-attended Cabinet meeting at 7 Race Course Road, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's official residence on Thursday. Of course, the Ministers of the three parties, government sources said, had prior engagements: their absence was not to be read as a protest.
In any case, the Trinamool and the DMK had registered their protest on Wednesday, while the NCP, Congress sources said, has sent a message to the party that it needed to discuss the issue. Even Kerala Chief Minister Oomen Chandy, it is learnt, has written to Dr. Singh, asking him to reverse the decision.
Indeed, most Congress Ministers were taken aback by the timing of the announcement of the hike: “We didn't allow the feel-good generated by Mulayam Singh Yadav's presence at the UPA's eighth anniversary celebrations to last even 24 hours,” a senior Minister told The Hindu.
Meanwhile, Petroleum Minister S. Jaipal Reddy was summoned back to Delhi, a day ahead of his scheduled return from Turkmenistan where he had gone on an official trip, apparently to attend a possible meeting of the Pranab Mukherjee-headed Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoM) on Friday. The EGoM might, official sources said, take a view on whether diesel and LPG rates should be revised as well.
Faced with a string of protests on Thursday not just in Opposition-ruled Gujarat, Odisha and Uttar Pradesh, but also in Andhra Pradesh and Haryana, where it is in power, the Congress braced itself for a nationwide protest planned separately by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance and the Left parties on May 31. All that the beleaguered Congress could do on Thursday was to advise States to reduce State taxes which the Congress-led Uttarakhand and Kerala had already done to lighten the burden on the aam aadmi — and to attack the Opposition: while Mr. Tewari pointed out that the NDA, which had dismantled the administered price mechanism during its tenure, had hiked fuel prices more than 30 times, senior Congress leader from Gujarat Arjun Modhwadia tweeted, “Will Gujarat follow Uttarakhand and Kerala in slashing VAT on fuel prices?”