Congress in last-ditch bid for votes

Congress in last-ditch bid for votes

Facing almost certain defeat in India's upcoming general election, the ruling Congress party is vowing to create 100 million jobs, provide free housing and better medical care for the poor and restore the country's 8 per cent growth rate within three years.

That message came in a manifesto long on promises but short on details of how the party would pay for them, and was delivered by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at party headquarters in New Delhi on wednesday.

Sounding upbeat despite opinion polls showing Congress' decade-long rule is set to end, Mr Gandhi said the only way to lift 800 million people out of poverty and into India's middle class is through economic growth.

"We are going to construct a manufacturing backbone that will give millions and millions of people jobs," he said. "We can't grow by neglecting business or poor people. We need to unleash business."

Flanked by his mother Sonia, the Congress president, and outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, 81, Mr Gandhi presented a six-minute video on the manifesto.

It showed him smiling and interacting with railway porters, women and other groups.

The 48-page manifesto includes plans to clamp down on corruption, invest US$1 trillion (S$1.2 trillion) in infrastructure projects, attract foreign investment in education and other sectors and work towards affirmative action in weaker sectors.

Congress was hit in its last term in power by a slowing economy, increasing inflation and corruption scandals.

Opinion polls show the party is likely to lose more than half its seats in the Lower House. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, 63, are widely expected to win power.

Mr Modi is riding on his reputation of transforming Gujarat into an economic powerhouse as chief minister. By contrast, Mr Gandhi, 43, has focused largely on internal party politics.

Some members of corporate India were not impressed by the Congress manifesto.

"Populism at its worst. It is an admission of clueless economic failure," said Mr Kiran Mazumdar Shaw, the chairman of leading biotechnology company Biocon, in a tweet in which he called the manifesto "unconvincing".

Analysts also said the manifesto is unlikely to boost the party's flagging popularity.

"It is not the message of the Congress that is the problem, it is the credibility of the messenger," said Ms Neerja Chowdhury, a senior journalist and political analyst.

"In the last term, Dr Singh was seen as a weak leader, Sonia was sick and Rahul Gandhi unwilling to lead... there was nobody to take charge and this is the gap into which Modi is stepping."

Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani, in a biting analysis on his blog, pointed out that Congress itself had helped the BJP's election prospects.

"Following carefully the performance of the Sonia-Manmohan Singh government since 2004," he wrote, "I have been telling colleagues that we should be grateful to the duo for working systematically and steadfastly to ensure that in 2014, once again a BJP-led government comes into power."

Dr Singh used the release of the manifesto to defend his record.

"Corruption is an issue in a developing economy," he said. "Corruption cannot be wished away. Every effort has been made to overcome these tendencies."


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