The Congress Party said on Tuesday in its election manifesto that it would include a hugely subsidised food scheme in new measures to protect farmers and the poor from the impact of the global slowdown.
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The proposals announced ahead of the April-May general election included guarantees by law that every family living below the poverty line would be entitled to 25 kg of rice or wheat per month at subsidised prices.
Economists may see the policy as a populist measure to win votes. Millions of Indians live in poverty.
Congress said it would extend interest relief to farmers and build on the national job guarantee scheme, both seen as potential vote winners.
The main battle in the 16 April 16 – 13 May ballot will be between a coalition led by the left-of-centre Congress Party and an alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, which has traditionally been more pro-business.
“When I look at the opportunities, I am convinced that this country can move forward on a road to faster, more equitable growth,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the manifesto launch in New Delhi.
Congress chief Sonia Gandhi confirmed Singh as the party’s choice to become prime minister if it wins the election, dismissing speculation that she, or her son Rahul, could head the government.
The global economic crisis has put pressure on Congress, which fears millions of jobs lost in the export sector could hit its electoral chances.
The Indian economy is expected to grow around 7% this year, down from 9% annually in the past three years.
But investors are worried that any populist schemes in an election year would widen a fiscal deficit that some analysts say has already risen to more than 10% of GDP.
The manifesto included plans to increase public spending in farming and remove all controls on the movement of farm products, measures aimed at the millions of farmers and villagers who make up more than half of India’s 1.1 billion-plus population.
“They are going by a populist stance, giving essentials like wheat, rice,” said political analyst N. Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies.
Congress also said it would maintain government control over state-run firms in the manufacturing and finance sectors.
Traders say political uncertainty is weighing on stocks, but the manifesto did not have a direct bearing on the main BSE index, which was up around 1% in late afternoon trading.
Many polls show that the Congress-led alliance could beat the main opposition grouping led by the BJP, but it could still fall short of a majority in Parliament.
The ruling Congress government gained power in 2004, but many of its economic reforms were blocked by its communist allies which supported the alliance in Parliament.
BJP plans SMS campaign
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has planned to reach out to the electorates through SMS for the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, appealing them to vote for the party, emphasising on a “decisive mandate” and explaining why their choice would be important this time around.
The voters are likely to get 4-5 SMSes from BJP and prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani making an appeal to vote for the party and the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
The SMS will be sent to the electorates close to the voting highlighting “if you want to see the change you desire, it is important we get a decisive mandate because instability won’t help the country”, said BJP IT Cell National Convenor Pradyut Bora.
The SMS campaign will revolve around the theme of BJP’s slogan ‘Mazboot Neta, Nirnayak Sarkar´ (strong leader decisive government), he said.
“Besides, the party has also planned to reach huge number of internet-user electorates through e-mails, specially in eight big metros comprising nearly 50 Lok Sabha seats,” Bora said.
In order to educate them on party programmes and policies, specially the IT vision document the party has set up an infrastructure through which it can send five-lakh e-mails daily to communicate with the potential voters, he said.
Sangma backs Sharad Pawar as PM
NCP leader and former Lok Sabha Speaker P.A. Sangma on Tuesday backed his party chief Sharad Pawar for the post of prime minister, saying he is “the most development-oriented” leader.
“Due to my close association with the affairs in New Delhi, I practically know all the leaders well. I can certify that Sharad Pawar is the most development-oriented leader and there is nothing wrong if he aspires to be PM,” said Sangma.
Sangma, a nine-time MP, said though Pawar is not in the race now, but anything might happen.
“Even Manmohan Singh or I.K. Gujral was not in race,” he said.
Shah Rukh, Preity to campaign for Congress
Congress on Tuesday said Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta will canvass for the party in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls.
Union minister of state for home and Congress’ third-time candidate Sri Prakash Jaiswal said filmstars Shah Rukh Khan, Priety Zinta, Govinda and Nagma will campaign for the party and participate in rallies and road shows.
He said though Govinda is a Congress leader, Nagma had been an active worker and campaigned for the party in earlier elections.
Asked if Khan and Preity will be able to campaign following the busy IPL schedule, Jaiswal said they will spare time for the purpose.
On party’s alliance with Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh, the leader said he had met party general secretary Amar Singh in this regard on high command’s order and the final decision will be taken by the party.
Jaiswal, however, said whether Congress reaches an alliance with SP or not will have no bearing on its relationship with the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led party and the two parties will continue to support each other.