The Congress on Monday launched a countrywide agitation against the government for raising prices of petroleum products 22 times in the past 23 days, with party chief Sonia Gandhi accusing it of setting "a new example of extortion".
Petroleum and Natural Gas Minister Dharmendra Pradhan hit back at her, saying the tax revenue earned from petrol and diesel is being used to fund welfare programmes for the poor and not to benefit any "son-in-law or Rajiv Gandhi Foundation".
The Congress retorted, with its spokesperson Khushboo Sundar saying, "It is not the Congress party which is complaining, it is the farmers, who are complaining. Is the BJP government blind or dumb and deaf that they can't hear or they don't want to react,” Sundar told a virtual press conference.
“It is a selective amnesia of the ministry of petroleum when the farmers are complaining about it...they (the BJP) have been giving 'jumlas' (empty promises) to the people and this is yet another attempt to give them 'jumla'," she said.
Pradhan earlier said Gandhi seems to have forgotten that states like Punjab, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Jharkhand, where the Congress is in power on its own or with allies, have also hiked VAT on petrol and diesel and burdened people.
"The tax earned from petrol and diesel is being spent on healthcare, generating employment and giving people financial security. The BJP government uses people's money for the poor's welfare through direct benefit transfer. It is not like the Congress, which would use the revenue for welfare of a son-in-law and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF)," the Oil minister said.
"Sonia Gandhi is saying so because the Congress has, for generations, used power to transfer money meant for government schemes to bank accounts of son-in-law and the RGF," Pradhan alleged.
Seeking an immediate rollback of the hikes, Rahul Gandhi said the decision to raise fuel prices was the "most ill-advised" at the time of economic hardship being faced by the people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and asked the government to stop "profiteering".
Scores of Congress leaders and workers staged demonstrations and took out marches in state capitals and district headquarters across the country and submitted memoranda, addressed to President Ram Nath Kovind, to local authorities demanding immediate rollback of the hikes to ease people's burden in this "time of crisis".
Top Congress leaders, including Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, put out video messages on social media as part of the party' SpeakUpAgainstFuelHike" campaign.
Sonia Gandhi charged the government with profiteering at the expense of the people and said its duty was to help them in times of crisis and not make profits out of their hard-earned money.
On the one hand the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc and on the other, the rise in petrol and diesel prices was making life very difficult for the people, she said.
"I, along with all Congressmen and others together, demand from the Modi government to immediately roll back the increase in prices of petrol and diesel raised during this crisis due to the corona pandemic," the Congress president said in a video message.
"I also urge them to roll back the rise in excise duty on petrol and diesel since March this year and give this benefit to the countrymen. This will be a big relief in this period of economic crisis," she said.
The Congress chief said this in its own was the living proof of taking the hard-earned incomes of the people and filling the government's coffers
"The government's duty is to support the countrymen in difficult times and not take advantage of their plight and profiteer.
"The government has set a new example of extortion from people through this unjustified increase in petrol and diesel prices. This is not only unjust but also insensitive," Gandhi said, noting that it directly hurts the country's farmers, the poor, the working class, the middle class and small businesses.
The Modi government has raised the excise duty 12 times, which helped it collect additional revenue of nearly Rs 18 lakh crore, she said.
Rahul Gandhi said, "The biggest ill-advised decision the government took was to hike petrol and diesel prices...not once but 22 times.... This decision has dealt the biggest blow to the vulnerable and the poor."
"The government should stop profiteering from petrol and diesel and should immediately reduce prices and excise duty on them," he said as part of his video message.
AICC general secretary K C Venugopal said the party undertook the nationwide agitation against the "unmindful, insensitive and unprecedented" hike in the prices of petrol and diesel even though the price of international crude has been at a record low.
He said from June 30 to July 4, the party will hold protests at tehsil and block levels.
Sundar questioned the prime minister's silence on the issue and asked why he was not listening to the people's woes and granting relief to them.
She said prices of petroleum products were increased 22 times in the past 23 days. She demanded that the benefit of low crude oil prices be passed on to people and petrol and diesel be brought under the Goods and Services Tax regime.