The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sonia sets policy agenda for poll
- Assurance on reform, peace with Pak

Srinagar, May 30: Sonia Gandhi today unveiled her party’s agenda for national governance, flagging off the campaign for the general election next year.

In her 25-minute opening speech at the fifth chief ministers’ conclave here, the Congress president spelt out her views on foreign policy and economic reforms but avoided any direct reference to the poll.

On top of a nascent agenda for alternative governance was Sonia’s foreign policy outline on ties with Pakistan, though she put it in the context of Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s latest initiative to de-freeze relations.

“The doors of diplomacy and the windows of dialogue with Pakistan should always be kept open and active,” she said. The Opposition leader also supported the renewal of political, economic, cultural, educational and sporting ties with the western neighbour.

Sonia advocated further economic reforms to make the national economy “domestically productive and globally competitive”. She perhaps found it necessary to give the assurance to domestic industry, the markets and foreign investors in the light of her party’s increasing criticism of the Vajpayee government’s reform agenda.

At the same time, Sonia emphasised that the Congress was committed to the welfare of the poor and the downtrodden who, according to critics, have been the losers in the reform era.

She spelt out the Congress’ plans to strengthen agriculture, revitalise economic growth, promote investment, create employment, enforce fiscal management and draw up an effective food-for-work programme to provide security to the poor. The NDA’s policies have failed on all these fronts, Sonia asserted.

With as many as 15 states under Congress rule, Sonia asked her chief ministers to shield the party from any potential anti-incumbency worries in their states. Each chief minister needs to “identify a few flagship successes he wants to highlight and project as a unique contribution, from a political point of view”, she said.

Determined not to leave any potentially positive reform plank to the BJP, she advised the chief ministers to explore possibilities of legislation at the state-level to downsize ministries.

The Congress president took credit for getting a “categorical assurance” from deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani that “the territorial integrity of the existing states in the Northeast will not be disturbed as part of any peace process”. She urged the Centre to take all necessary steps to improve law and order in the region.

Sonia iterated her party’s commitment to work for the return of normality in Jammu and Kashmir, where she is holding this conclave. She asked the chief ministers to reserve seats in educational institutions for youth from the state and to help promote tourism, which was the main source of income in the past.

The Congress president was scheduled to sit down with the chief ministers and other party colleagues for a post-dinner session to plan the strategy for the Assembly elections in five states — Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram — in November.

She patted Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot for clamping down on the VHP’s hate campaign in the state. In what is seen as a mild censure of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh’s recent advocacy of soft Hindutva, she said: “Let us not look to what is electorally expedient.”

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