The Bharatiya Janata Party on Monday defended the rise in oil prices, attributing the hike to global factors, and accused the Congress and other opposition parties of resorting to violence during the 'Bharat bandh' as people did not support their call.
Even as the BJP fielded Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to counter the opposition offensive, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan met party president Amit Shah in New Delhi.
Prasad acknowledged that the people were facing 'momentary difficulty' due to increasing petrol and diesel prices and said they understand that this was due to factors beyond the control of the central government.
Noting that oil prices had gone down after the BJP-led government came to power in May 2014, before they went up, he said the solution is not in its hands.
"We are standing with people in their problem. We are trying to redress the issue and will do that," he said, fending off criticism over the issue.
Prasad claimed that the people understood the government's point of view and refused to support the 'Bharat bandh' call given by the Congress and several other opposition parties Monday.
"That is unnerving the Congress and other opposition parties. Resorting to violence is designed to overawe the people of India. An atmosphere of fear is being created," he told a press conference.
Citing the death of a three-year old girl in Bihar as she could not get medical help in time due to pro-bandh protesters allegedly stopping an ambulance, he asked if Congress president Rahul Gandhi will take responsibility for this.
However, Jehanabad Sub-Divisional Officer Paritosh Kumar challenged the claim, saying 'the death of the child was not related to bandh or traffic jam, the relatives had left late from their home'.
Hitting out at the Congress and other opposition parties, Prasad said they should stop this 'dance of violence and game of death'.
Normal life was hit in some states on Monday with offices and educational institutes closed and vehicles off the roads during an opposition sponsored 'Bharat bandh', which was largely peaceful, barring some incidents of violence.
The ruling party in a first extensive briefing on the rise in oil prices highlighted the government's expenditure on a number of welfare schemes, in an attempt to show that the revenue it has earned from taxes on petroleum products has been used for 'pro-poor' measures.
Prasad said the government spends over Rs 1.62 lakh crore on subsidised food, lakhs of crores of rupees on building national highways and rural roads, and has given over one crore houses to the rural poor.
It has also spent thousands of crores on rural employment guarantee schemes among others, he said.
"Our government is not a family-run dispensation," he said, taking a dig at the Congress, and claimed that it has been working for the poor and lifted over five crore people from extreme poverty.
He also dismissed allegations levelled by Gandhi against the government, saying the country is most worried when the Congress president speaks.
Referring to global factors behind the oil price rise, he cited the decision of several oil-producing countries to reduce supply, the political instability in Venezuela and the US sanctions on Iran.
Asked if the government can cut down on excise duty to bring down the prices, Prasad said it was done last year.
He said states can also cut down taxes levied by them, but added that it should be left to their wisdom as they also spend money on welfare schemes.
Oil prices, he said, had also gone up during the UPA government's rule with the cost of a litre of petrol going up from Rs 39 to Rs 71.
Government sources said the price of petrol had gone up by 20.5 per cent between May 2004 and May 2009, the United Progressive Alliance's first term, and then by 75.48 per cent in the next first years of its rule.
They added that its cost during the Modi government's rule has gone up by only 13 per cent as it moved from Rs 71.41 to Rs 80.73. These prices are of Delhi.
The Congress has, however, said oil prices rose during the UPA as international crude cost was much higher than what it is during the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government.
Prasad said the NDA government has brought down the inflation rate to 4.7 per cent from 10.4 per cent during the UPA.
He also challenged Manmohan Singh, who was prime minister between 2004 and 2014, for a debate on the country's economy in Parliament.
Responding to Singh's criticism of the government's economic policies, he said the Congress leader should leave the job of making stray remarks to Gandhi and engage in a constructive debate with him.
With the opposition stepping up pressure on the fuel price issue, Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan met BJP president Amit Shah. But the party did not elaborate on the discussion at the meeting.
People should reduce expenses to deal with rising fuel prices: Rajasthan minister
Stoking a controversy, Rajasthan minister Rajkumar Rinwa on Monday advised people to reduce their expenses to deal with rising fuel prices, a comment slammed by the Congress as 'arrogant' and 'insensitive'.
"People do not understand that if fuel prices are rising they should cut down their expenses. They do not understand this," he said.
Rinwa also said people do not understand that fuel prices are rising as consumption is increasing.
"The government is making efforts to reduce the fuel prices by reducing tax. Expenditure is being made in thousands of crores on flood relief all around (the country) for which money is required," he told reporters.
Fuel prices are regulated by the world market and the government has nothing to do with it, the minister of state for the devasthan department said.
Reacting to Rinwa's statement, Congress's Rajasthan chief Sachin Pilot said, "Such remarks from a BJP leader tell you they are very arrogant and they are insensitive to the needs of people."
"When people are suffering they are making it worse by such outlandish statements," he told reporters.
Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, at an All India Congress Committee briefing in New Delhi, alleged that it was extremely classic of BJP ministers to mock the people.
He cited examples of other BJP ministers who had allegedly used abusive words for farmers, Dalits and people from other backward classes as also those garlanding lynching accused.
"They are habitual offenders when it comes to insulting the people. The Rajasthan minister, who has been egged on to say by (BJP president) Amit Shah and (chief minister) Vasundhara Raje, reflects the character and design of the BJP of mocking and insulting people," Surjewala said.
The Congress rejects such 'venomous' comment of the Rajasthan minister, he said.
"I know that (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi ji will not take any action. He encourages such lumpen elements to say what they say and that is the character and style of the BJP," Surjewala said.
The BJP government in Rajasthan had on Sunday reduced the Value Added Tax on petrol and diesel by four percentage points in the state.
The VAT on petrol was reduced from 30 to 26 per cent and from 22 to 18 per cent on diesel.