April 2, 2019 / 7:58 AM / 19 days ago

Congress promises to halve unemployment; Kashmir plan criticised

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s main opposition Congress party made election pledges on Tuesday to halve unemployment in five years, but its promise to change a law on special powers for troops in disputed Kashmir drew criticism from the ruling party.

Rahul Gandhi (C), President of India's main opposition Congress party, his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi and India's former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (R) display copies of their party's election manifesto for the April/May general election in New Delhi, India, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Congress has consistently trailed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, despite winning three key state elections late last year amid farm distress and a jobs shortage.

Releasing its manifesto for a staggered general election that starts on April 11, Congress highlighted job creation, tackling farm distress and empowerment of women among its top priorities. Votes will be counted on May 23.

Party president Rahul Gandhi said Congress would expand an existing jobs programme to guarantee 150 days of work a year to rural households, up from 100 days.

“The main issues in the country today are unemployment and farmer distress,” said Gandhi, releasing the manifesto. “The economy is jammed, and everyone agrees that India’s economy is stuck, so that needs to be restarted.”

Congress also promised to simplify a goods and services tax, quickly fill 2.2 million government jobs nationwide, create 1 million more on rural and urban development panels, and reward businesses for employment generation.

“Over a five-year period, I do think we can bring unemployment down to 3 percent to 4 percent,” Praveen Chakravarty, a party official who analyses data, told Reuters.

“We can certainly more than halve the unemployment number in a five-year period.”

“AMBITIOUS MANIFESTO”

Gandhi said Congress had won voters’ hearts with last week’s plan to hand 72,000 rupees ($1,041) a year to India’s poorest, a promise the BJP has dismissed as a bluff and some economists have called fiscally irresponsible.

“This is an ambitious manifesto,” said Shilan Shah, an economist at Capital Economics in Singapore.

“The income scheme promise, though a worthy initiative, looks implausible to implement, considering India’s limited fiscal space. India does not have the financial infrastructure in place to give such handouts.”

The BJP has focused on national security amid fresh hostilities with arch rival Pakistan, after a February militant attack that killed 40 Indian paramilitary troops in Kashmir was claimed by an Islamist group based in the neighbouring country.

Modi’s party came down hard on Congress for its pledge to amend a law that gives special powers to armed forces battling the Kashmir insurgency, in a bid to balance security needs and human rights concerns.

“Some of the ideas in the Congress manifesto are positively dangerous and they will result in the Balkanisation of India,” Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, who heads the BJP’s election publicity committee, told reporters.

Congress leaders later clarified that they would review the immunity granted to security forces only in cases of enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Congress, which had accused the government of trying to suppress dissent after a colonial-era sedition law was used recently against students marking the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri separatist, also vowed to scrap a law it said has been “misused and, in any event, become redundant”.

“Anti national acts will no more be a crime. Whichever party makes such announcements, that party does not deserve a single vote,” Jaitley said.

($1=69.1310 Indian rupees)

Reporting by Devjyot Ghoshal, Manoj Kumar and Aftab Ahmed; Writing by Krishna N. Das; Editing by Darren Schuettler and Clarence Fernandez

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