Opposition parties in India – including both the right and left – and trade unions have staged a massive nationwide strike to protest the government’s plan to reform the retail sector by allowing foreign direct investments from global supermarket chains.
Under the government’s reform plan, retailing giants like Wal-Mart will be permitted to purchase up to 51 percent of Indian retailers -- which means they can now sell their wares directly to Indian consumers, rather than sell to middle-man Indian retailers.
Small business owners in the country fear that the entry of global retail outlets into India would force them out of business, while the government counters that such reforms are necessary to kick-start India’s slowing economy and prevent a credit downgrade.
Praveen Khandelwal, the head of a retail trade organization which supports the strike, told Agence France Presse: “Multinational companies will destroy the economic and social fabric of the country and will adversely impact traders, transporters, farmers and other sections of retail trade.”
He added: "These big [foreign] companies can attract customers by selling at cost prices. That means people here are going to lose jobs. Shops like ours will be hit the most."
The strikers are also unhappy with rising fuel prices.
BBC reported that the teeming cities of Bangalore and Calcutta were virtually shut down, while railways in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were blocked. Schools, businesses and public transport have closed in other parts of the country.
However, the strike did not appear to enjoy universal support and participation. Delhi and Mumbai did not see a significant slowdown in its normal hectic daily activity.
Andrew North, a BBC correspondent in Delhi, wrote: “Shutters were down on shops in old Delhi. Roads were closed. Outside the historic Red Fort, protesters bussed in by the opposition BJP [party] set alight an effigy of the prime minister, cheering as they stamped on the burning remains. But in the end it was a small strike over Mr. Singh's plans to allow in foreign supermarkets, with a similarly patchy turnout elsewhere.”
North added that the public is still angry at Singh’s administration over other issues.
“People haven't forgotten issues like corruption, which they say has got much worse under the Congress-party led coalition,” he wrote.
“And despite planned cuts in fuel subsidies, it's still not clear if India can escape a credit rating downgrade.”
The strike has created a bizarre temporary ‘union’ of sorts between the right-wing nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Communists.
Leftist and rightist opposition leaders both accuse the government of pursuing reforms in order to cater to the U.S. and other western nations, slamming the polices as “anti-people and anti-national.”
The crisis has already led a key partner in the ruling coalition (the Trinamool Congress party led by Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal) to withdraw its support for the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.