Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Digvijay Singh sees toilets helping Congress to surprise election win

New Delhi: The ruling Congress party may promise voters legal rights to basic facilities like toilets, drinking water and housing in a bid to surprise pollsters and win a third term in elections due by May, a senior leader said.

“Meeting needs of the common man will propel Congress to victory in a nation where more than half of 1.2 billion people don’t have a toilet in their homes," according to Digvijay Singh, a party executive helping to devise campaign strategy. Opinion polls show Congress set for its worst-ever performance, with the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the most seats.

“We proved you wrong in 2004, we proved you wrong in 2009 and we will prove you wrong in 2014 also," Singh, a member of the party’s top decision-making body helmed by Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, said in a 24 January interview at his New Delhi home. “We have done extremely well, but failed in taking credit."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s party is banking on rural support and alliances with regional parties to extend its decade-long rule of Asia’s third-largest economy. It has boosted rural wages with higher guaranteed crop prices and employment programmes even as Asia’s fastest inflation and the slowest economic growth in a decade erodes support in urban areas.

Digvijay Singh, a confidante of Rahul Gandhi, didn’t say who would provide the toilets, drinking water and housing—all promises he said would probably be included in the party’s campaign manifesto to be released next month. Congress has passed legal mandates for people to get subsidized food, free education and greater access to information.

‘Too late’

“Whatever policies or programmes Congress party announces now won’t succeed as it is too late," said Sanjay Kumar, a New Delhi-based analyst at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. “The BJP has already taken the momentum."

Standard and Poor’s has warned India’s credit rating may be cut to junk unless the general election leads to a government capable of reviving economic growth that slowed to 5% in the last fiscal year. The government will meet its budget deficit target of 4.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) in the fiscal year ending 31 March, the narrowest in six years, finance minister P. Chidambaram said in a 23 January interview.

India’s rupee, which has fallen about 14% against the dollar in the past year, completed its worst week since August on concern regional economic weakness and the prospect of further US stimulus cuts will spur fund outflows. The current account deficit will narrow to about $56 billion this fiscal year from a record $88 billion, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan said in November.

Defecate outdoors

More than half of India’s people defecate outdoors, compared with 4% in China and 7% in both Brazil and Bangladesh, according to the United Nations’ Children Fund. Only a quarter of Indian homes have drinking water on the premises, it said. About 1.8 million Indians have no homes, while 65 million people live in slums, census data shows.

Digvijay Singh, 66, said Congress has reduced poverty in India, home to the most poor people on earth. Food output climbed to a record high in the year ending June 2012 as increased literacy, rural roads and mobile-phone connections boosted productivity.

“Investors must realize you cannot keep this country’s growth if you keep this country poor," Singh said. “They must understand that public spending in poverty alleviation, public spending in health and education, has brought poor people into the middle class."

Poverty falls

India has seen the number of rural people living on less than 816 per month—the official poverty line—fall by about one-third during Singh’s tenure to 217 million people in March 2012, according to the Planning Commission. Rural wages after inflation rose 6.8% per year on average in the five years through March 2012 after falling in the previous five years, a ministry of agriculture report showed.

At the same time, consumer prices have stayed elevated, accelerating 9.87% in December. Rajan will leave the benchmark repurchase rate unchanged at 7.75% on Tuesday, according to 36 of 39 economists in a Bloomberg News survey. Three predict a quarter-point move to 8%.

The BJP is set to win 188 seats in the 545-member lower house, surpassing the 182 seats it won in 1999, according to a C-Voter poll for India Today published on 23 January. Congress may get as few as 91 seats versus 210 now, dropping to its lowest on record, the poll said, without providing a margin of error. A separate survey on 24 January showed the BJP winning as many as 210 seats, with a maximum of 108 for the Congress.

Common man

Congress has sought to appeal to the common man, known as aam aadmi in Hindi, in the past two elections. Last month, an upstart party called Aam Aadmi trounced Congress in the Delhi state election to form the government and is winning new supporters daily, further clouding the outcome for an election in which no party is forecast to win a majority.

“BJP prime minister candidate Narendra Modi has no substance," Singh said, “while Rahul Gandhi is extremely decisive, forthright and has a vision for the country". The Congress party earlier this month declined to make Gandhi its formal prime minister candidate, a move Modi saw as a signal the party would lose the election.

Singh said Congress is in talks with potential coalition partners in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two key states where the BJP seeks to pick up ground. Picking up allies in those states could help Congress deny the BJP a victory, according to Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based policy group.

“We are aggressively going to campaign on our accomplishments, Singh said. “No other government has ever given so much power to the common man." Bloomberg

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Updated: 28 Jan 2014, 12:33 AM IST
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