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When Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi stepped on to the dais at South Mumbai’s Zaveri Bazaar, the hub of India’s gold and diamond trade, his mission was clear — cash in on the ongoing unrest among traders to break into an important voter constituency of the BJP.
Since March 2, jewellers have been agitating against the Narendra Modi-led government over imposition of an excise duty. They have downed shutters for an unprecedented 46 days, and even raised slogans terming their vote to the BJP in the elections a “bhool” or a mistake.
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However, there was a catch on Tuesday. The Congress couldn’t afford to be seen pandering excessively to the trader community, party sources conceded. After all, party leaders had liberally used the ‘baniyon ki sarkaar (government of traders)’ slogan to attack BJP governments in the state and the Centre. Also, the UPA government too had imposed similar levies on jewellers in 2005 and 2012, before rolling it back following a backlash.
So, the Gandhi scion began his interaction with the trading community by raking up his “anti-poor” jibe against the Modi government. “This government believes in crushing the poor and the weak. It believes in oppressing weaker sections,” he said.
Likening the fate of small jewellers and labourers with that of farmers, Rahul remarked, “They first tried to strangulate the farmers. The government attempted to enact the Land Acquisition Act thrice but when the farmer and the Congress party stood up against it, was forced to backtrack. Modiji was heard saying in Mann Ki Baat that he had never wanted the Act in the first place. And now, the same is happening to you (jewellers and their workers). All because the government thinks that you are weak and they can easily strangulate you.”
Opting not to discuss the levies in detail, Rahul said, “This is not an excise duty on jewellers but an assassination attempt on small traders and workers. You are being murdered. But why are you being killed? This is because the government feels you are weak. The seven crore people engaged in the trade bring smiles to people’s faces daily, but you do not have big money. The reality is your work is sought to be given to a handful of big companies.”
He ended his speech, which lasted just eight minutes, with a promise that the Congress would raise the plight of the jewellers and the small workers when the Budget session of the Parliament reconvenes on April 25.
But the assurance did not appear to have enthused everyone. Requesting anonymity, a jewellery manufacturer, who said he had attended the rally to catch a glimpse of the “Congress Yuvraj”, said, “We have been on a strike from March 2. And they now want us to wait till April 25. How can we go on doing business?”
Despite the scorching heat, about 4,000 people gathered to participate in the rally. Incidentally, organisers were seen belting out numerous requests to the traders to participate in the rally until an hour before Rahul Gandhi arrived. Some senior faces, who are spearheading the stir, including Fatehchand Ranka, chairman of the All India Action Committee of Jewellers and Prithviraj Kothari, among others, remained absent. Mumbai Congress chief Sanjay Nirupam alleged the BJP brass had warned some top jewellers of dire consequences if they participated in the rally.
But Sarat Das (46), a goldsmith, conceded that the jewellers themselves were divided over the new levy. “Some on the manufacturing side do not mind the government’s proposal. But most traders are against it,” he said. Workers employed in jewellery firms in Zaveri Bazaar showed maximum attendance.