If PM Modi’s ‘sensitivity’ and concern led to cut in fuel prices, why were they kept high for so long?

As soon as elections are announced, petroleum companies freeze price hikes and the day the results are out, they resume the hikes. This has been happening consistently over many elections

Representative photo
Representative photo

K Raveendran

Petroleum and natural gas minister Hardeep Singh Puri has attributed the excise cut in petroleum products to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘considered and very well thought through assessment that the burden on the common man, the Aam Aadmi, needed to be addressed’. He was speaking to television channel in the wake of the latest announcement by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman of a cut of Rs 8 in the excise duty on petrol and Rs 7 per litre of diesel. Puri further praised the prime minister saying he was very sensitive.

Puri was not just echoing the sentiments of a ‘bhakt’. Modi himself seems to have been much in agreement. “It is always people first for us! Today’s decisions, especially the one relating to a significant drop in petrol and diesel prices will positively impact various sectors, provide relief to our citizens and further ‘Ease of Living’,” the prime minister said in a tweet after Nirmala Sitharaman announced the excise cut.

There is nothing wrong with both remarks. If the decision is attributable to Modi’s ‘sensitivity’, the corollary is that the prime minister can be accused of insensitivity when he preferred to look the other way when there were so many burning issues – whether it was the suffering of millions of migrant labourers during their trek back home after the ill-timed lockdown, or the turmoil in the wake of the vexing farmers agitation or even the destruction of the economy as a result of the misadventure of demonetisation.

It was the efforts of the judiciary, though after a period of initial reluctance, that retrieved the situation to some extent, whether it was the great reverse migration, or the fight against Covid and the world’s biggest vaccination drive that prevented even a greater pandemic tragedy.

Now getting back to Puri and his faux pas. He described the oil companies as ‘responsible citizens’ and responsible entities in controlling petrol and diesel prices. “They are very strong stakeholders in our system and clearly, they do their own decision making,” he said.

He went on to point out that since over a month, oil marketing companies have not made any changes in petrol and diesel prices even as the global crude oil prices have remained high and extremely volatile amid the ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

Puri says it is not for him as the minister for petroleum and natural gas ‘to have to tell them what they can do and what they can’t do’. Fair enough. This brings into question the price behaviour of petroleum products ahead of crucial elections in the country, which has over time fallen into a pattern.

As soon as elections are announced, the petroleum companies apply a freeze on their price hikes and the day the results are out, they resume the hikes. This has been happening consistently over many elections.

If, as Puri suggests, the petroleum companies are volunteering to do the price cuts in time of elections without a direction to the effect from the government, the companies must be held responsible for trying to influence the voting, not to mention in favour of the ruling party.

If petroleum companies can rig the elections, like Facebook and other social media platforms have been accused of doing in various countries, it is one of the biggest threats to democracy.

Facebook has been on the mat for helping to influence public opinion – from the 2016 Trump campaign and Brexit to helping influence elections in third world countries.

Recent developments in Sri Lanka have shown how fuel prices and availability are critical in sensitive situations. It was the fuel crisis that turned the scale finally against the Rajapaksas, though the Lankan situation owed much more to the faulty policies followed by successive governments which got the island nation into a debt trap set by the Chinese.

The Indian ruling establishment would have clearly picked up clues from the Lankan development and the newly-found ‘sensitivity’ may have been an offshoot of this realisation, especially with another round of crucial elections ahead.

(IPA Service)

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