Congress takes populist route

Congress takes populist route
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First Published: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 01 15 AM IST

Poll promises: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi releasing the party manifesto for the coming general election at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on Tuesday. Subhav
Poll promises: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi releasing the party manifesto for the coming general election at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on Tuesday. Subhav
Updated: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 10 10 AM IST
New Delhi: As the Congress reaffirmed that Manmohan Singh would be its candidate for prime minister for a second term, the party’s election manifesto renewed its commitment to the aam aadmi (common man) with a range of populist promises, and pledged to strengthen internal security.
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Every family below the poverty line would be guaranteed 25kg of rice or wheat per month priced as low as Rs3 a kg if the Congress returns to power, said the manifesto, which also promised fresh concessions on farm loans and free movement of farm commodities.
It pledged to strengthen the country’s security apparatus and accelerate police reforms—a promise obviously made in the context of a rash of terrorist attacks over the past year capped by the audacious three-day assault on Mumbai in November.
And the party said it would pursue “affirmative action on reservations” in the private sector for underprivileged scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.
Poll promises: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi releasing the party manifesto for the coming general election at the AICC headquarters in New Delhi on Tuesday. Subhav Shukla / PTI
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power in 2004 on a pro-poor, pro-rural plank of protecting the interests of the aam aadmi. In the past five years, it has unveiled big-ticket rural initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and a record farm loan waiver.
It’s appealing for a renewed term at a time when no political formation seems to have a clear edge in the run-up to the general election that starts on 16 April.
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The party’s manifesto also pledged to enact a right to food law guaranteeing sufficient food for all, and said subsidized community kitchens will be set up in all cities for homeless people and migrants with the support of the Union government. By way of economic reform, it said it would go ahead with measures such as a single national goods and service tax by 1 April 2010.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who released the manifesto, implicitly endorsed Singh for a second term as prime minister. Ruling out the possibility of her son Rahul Gandhi becoming prime minister, she said: “I had made my position very clear in 2004 and there is no change in that position even now.”
On the same occasion, an unusually aggressive Singh attacked L.K. Advani, the prime ministerial candidate of the principal opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“When I look at the record of Mr Advani, all I can discover is the prominent role he played in the destruction of Babri Masjid,” he said, referring to the razing of the 16th century mosque in Ayodhya in December 1992 by Hindu activists.
“What else has he done afterwards as a politician for national welfare? We know, for example, that when he was the home minster,, the attack on Parliament took place... He was the home minister who presided over the massacre that took place in Gujarat.”
Those were references to a late 2001 attack by militants who breached security and entered the grounds of Parliament, and anti-Muslim riots that broke out in Gujarat the following year.
“The country must reflect whether this is the person fit to hold the office of the prime minister,” Singh said.
BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad retaliated against Singh, whom Advani has in the past described as a “weak” prime minister, with real power vesting in Sonia Gandhi.
“Advani has a record of public service for the past 50 years and he is an acknowledged national leader. His tough posture as home minister is well known,” Prasad said. “Manmohan Singh’s record is no match for Advani. Singh is PM by accident as he never chooses to contest an election.”
Singh also attacked the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, which is trying to put together a third political alternative, without either the Congress or the BJP.
When the world wanted India to move forward, “regressive parties” such as the CPM, with a “negative mindset”, wanted the country to go “backward”, said Singh.
The CPM and its partners in the Left withdrew support to the UPA government in July to protest against the India-US nuclear deal. The Left’s support had sustained the UPA in power for more than four years.
The Left’s opposition to proposed economic reforms forced the government to leave key policy changes, including allowing higher foreign investment in insurance, on the back burner. The CPM says its resistance shielded the economy from the brunt of the global financial crisis.
“It is widely acknowledged, especially in the backdrop of the global economic slowdown, that the stand and the role of the Left have protected our economy, national sovereignty and the interests of the people as well as their livelihood,” said CPM general secretary Prakash Karat on Tuesday.
“Our negative actions have ensured that the economic meltdown has not hit the Indian economy as hard as it might have,” said Communist Party of India general secretary A.B. Bardhan.
The Left parties on Tuesday issued a joint appeal to the people stressing the need for an alternative (non-Congress, non-BJP) secular government.
Ruhi Tewari of Mint and PTI contributed to this story.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
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First Published: Wed, Mar 25 2009. 01 15 AM IST