New Delhi: The ruling Congress on Tuesday backed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his economic reform initiatives but made it amply clear that it can’t come at the expense of the ongoing popular flagship initiatives.
Analysts see the Congress Working Committee’s (CWC) stand as the first indication that India’s oldest political party was readying for electoral battles.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who was speaking for the first time since the government announced a series of initiatives, fully endorsed the decisions. “She said it was important to improve the country’s economy and the government has started taking steps for it,” said Janardan Dwivedi, general secretary of the Congress party. Gandhi also urged that the party cadre should spread the government’s message among the people.
N. Bhaskara Rao, a political analyst who has been closely observing the Congress party for more than three decades, said that Gandhi was asking the party to rally behind the government.
“The Congress and the government are in such a position that it does not have any option, but being bullish. It seems to have realized that aggressive stance is what pays off...Gandhi’s speech can be seen as a call for covering the ground level. It is gearing up for the election,” Rao said. The next general election is due in 2014. In an attempt to reduce the fiscal deficit and improve the investment atmosphere, the government had earlier this month increased the price of diesel by Rs.5 a litre, capped the number of cooking gas cylinders to six a household per annum and allowed foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail, ignoring criticism that the measures were “anti-people”.
The government is expected to save Rs.20,000 crore in subsidies by these measures, but the decisions had drawn severe criticism from the opposition as well as some allies.
The Trinamool Congress opposed the government’s decision and withdrew support to the ruling coalition, reducing the government to a minority. The Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party has pledged outside support to the government, ensuring its survival.
The CWC met for almost two hours to discuss the current political situation after the TMC’s withdrawal of support. The meeting was chaired by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and was attended by the Prime Minister, finance minister P. Chidambaram and defence minister A.K. Antony among others.
Gandhi told the meeting that the economic measures were critical for the country, which faces the threat of high fiscal deficit and lower-than-expected growth.
The Prime Minister assured party leaders that the steps being taken for the poor and the disadvantaged will continue along with the Congress policies for development and welfare of the common man. The CWC meeting saw the government making a strong pitch for reforms with Chidambaram making it clear that unless the country’s economic condition is sound, the government will not be in a position to implement the flagship programmes of the UPA targeted at the poor. Explaining the rationale behind the measures, Chidambaram said the government wants that the country should not get affected due to the global economic crisis.
Sonia Gandhi described the approach of the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the issues facing the country as “destructive”, Dwivedi said. “The Congress president was of the view that the opposition should play a responsible role.”
Singh explained the decisions of the government at the meeting.
“It is a totally meaningless argument,” Brinda Karat, senior member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said about the Congress stand of backing the reform initiatives but not at the expense of implementing the ongoing flagship welfare programmes. “The flagship programmes of the UPA are actually price rise and unemployment,” she said.
“As far as prices are concerned, the government has not been able to contain it and its policies, in fact, have a negative impact,” she said, adding that FDI in retail would impact as many as 50 million people.
Other than CWC members and permanent invitees, Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit also attended the meeting. CWC members present spoke on various issues, including the impact of the recent decisions; general secretary Rahul Gandhi spoke only about strengthening Panchayati Raj in Jammu and Kashmir. There is speculation that he may take over as vice-president or working president of the party.
PTI contributed to this story.