Central & South Asia

India ruling party stages pro-reforms rally

Congress stalwarts, wary of voter backlash, seek to defend moves to liberalise retail, insurance and aviation sectors.
Last Modified: 04 Nov 2012 09:13
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, right, both spoke at the rally [AFP]

Sonia Gandhi, India's ruling Congress party chief, and Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, have addressed a major rally in New Delhi to gather support for contentious economic measures in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Gandhi, the head of the Congress, will be seeking to drum up support for the party in a bid to win elections for the third straight time.

In her speech at the rally in the Indian capital on Sunday, she vowed that her party was working with the best interests of the country's impoverished at heart.

Congress leaders are defending the government's recent moves to allow wider foreign investment in the retail, insurance and aviation sectors aimed at spurring a sharply slowing economy and creating jobs.

Rahul Gandhi, Sonia's 42-year-old son, made a rare public address at the rally, spurring speculation that he will be put up as the Congress Party's prime ministerial candidate were they to win the polls in 2014.

"We need economic reforms because only when businesses operate well will there be progress, and then we can run programmes to benefit the poor," he said.

Gandhi vowed to help push through policy changes that will transform India's retail sector by allowing global supermarket chains such as Walmart and Tesco to open in India and tap into its burgeoning consumer market.

"The world is saying that India is standing up," he told the rally. "The youth here will show not just India but also the whole world the way forward."

The grounds where the event is being held can hold more than 100,000 people, and was largely full while the addresses were taking place.

The party is wary of voter backlash in the elections, due in 18 months, over the policy reforms it has so far put into place.

Critics say that while the reforms are investor friendly, they do not address the concerns of the majority of India's 1.2 billion citizens, many of whom live in poverty.

Broad-spectrum opposition

Congress faces a broad spectrum of opposing forces from political parties hostile to foreign firms to trade unions worried about job losses and is now a now a minority in parliament, having lost an ally who quit over the sensitive issue of allowing foreign supermarkets into the family-dominated retail sector.

At the same time, however, the party knows it has to restore its credibility as a force fit to govern in the face of a drumroll of corruption charges that have put it on the defensive almost since the last elections in 2009, analysts say.

"The attempt now is to shift the debate from negativism of corruption to positives like growth and employment to which the aspirational India responded [in the 2009 elections]," DK Singh, a columnist, said.

The rally is being staged a week after Singh, 80, overhauled his cabinet to include a number of younger ministers.

"Young MPs tell me that you all want to change the system, and together we can," Rahul Gandhi told the rally. "The biggest problem is that our political system is shut for the common man."

Rahul, whose family has dominated politics in India for most of its post-independence history, has rebuffed attempts to get him to join the cabinet, leading to doubts about his appetite for the demands of political life.

He has insisted, however, that he prefers to work at the grassroots to "build the party" and Congress officials say he is tipped soon to be named second in the party hierarchy after the 65-year-old Sonia.


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