x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

India's Congress party tries to rally the faithful

Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh to address huge crowd.

NEW DELHI // India's ruling Congress party chief, Sonia Gandhi, and the prime minster, Manmohan Singh, were set to speak at a big rally today to whip up support for contentious economic reforms ahead of 2014 elections.

Mrs Gandhi, India's political grand matriarch who led Congress to back-to-back wins in 2004 and 2009, is moving into high gear as she seeks to persuade voters to elect the party for a third term.

At the rally in the Indian capital, the leaders will defend the government's blitz of reforms to allow wider foreign investment in the retail, insurance and aviation sectors aimed at spurring a sharply slowing economy and creating jobs.

"We want to tell people these are people-friendly measures - for the betterment of the common man," a senior Congress party official said.

"Holding this rally in New Delhi means this message will go out the length of the country - it is part of laying the ground [for the elections]," he said, adding the gathering would be "one of the biggest by the party in some time".

The grounds where the event is to be staged can hold more than 100,000 people.

The left-leaning Congress party is deeply wary of a voter backlash in the elections due within 18 months over the reforms that have drawn strong political opposition in this country of 1.2 billion people, many of whom are still living in severe poverty.

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.

But at the same time, 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]," said Indian Express columnist D K Singh.

The rally is being staged a week after Mr Singh, 80, overhauled his cabinet to give it a more youthful face with the inclusion of younger ministers to appeal to the country's vast youth population.

Also due to speak was Mrs Ghandi's son, Rahul Gandhi, 42.