India’s Ruling Congress Debates Policy Ahead of Key Poll Period

India’s ruling Congress party tomorrow begins a three-day meeting to agree policy priorities less than 15 months before a general election and with the government seeking to recover from a stalling economy, cabinet-level corruption and street protests.

The conclave in Jaipur will review the political and economic challenges the party faces, Janardan Dwivedi, a spokesman for Congress, told reporters yesterday. Party President Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be among 350 party leaders who’ll lead discussions. About 1,000 delegates will endorse a policy platform Jan. 20.

It will be the first such session since Congress came to power in 2004 and the third after Gandhi took charge of the party in 1998. A similar summit in 2003 endorsed a decision to fight the following year’s election at the head of a pre-arranged coalition, paving the way for Singh’s two terms.

“This is significant as a section of Congress leaders are advocating to advance the poll to take place toward the end of this year along with some state elections,” said Satish Misra, a political analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. “The party is in election mood.” The government’s term expires in May next year.

Congress will also further project 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi as its future leader, after announcing he will lead campaigning for the federal election and nine provincial assembly polls scheduled to take place before then.

Taking on partners in the 10-member governing coalition and opponents within his party, Singh revived stalled policy overhauls in September to stem a slowdown in expansion, steps that helped send stocks to a two-year high this week on bets that a recovery has begun. The push ended almost two years of legislative paralysis.

Current Account

While inflation eased to a three-year low of 7.18 percent in December, it remains the fastest among the biggest emerging markets. A record current-account gap is threatening to damp the rupee, adding to price pressures.

Singh, 80, has opened industries including retail and aviation to more overseas investment, set up a panel to speed up infrastructure projects and delayed tax changes that threatened to deter inflows. The finance ministry predicts India’s $1.8 trillion economy will expand as little as 5.7 percent in the year to March 31.

As well as repairing Asia’s third-largest economy, Congress also needs to win back voters angered by a corruption taint that reached the highest levels of governance, with the arrest and trial of former telecommunications minister Andimuthu Raja in a phone-license scam. The gang rape and murder of medical student in New Delhi last month has brought demands for a swift overhaul of policing and the criminal justice system. Both issues triggered public demonstrations.

There has been no major survey of probable voter preferences since Singh’s September reform drive. A poll published in August by Nielsen Holding NV and India Today magazine forecast that that a grouping lead by the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party would win the most seats in an election.

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