The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Cong pledges continuity with cry for change

New Delhi, March 22: Couched in a promise of change, the Congress today unveiled a manifesto that implies continuity on reforms and reflects the undeclared economic consensus among the principal political parties.

The document is pockmarked with the customary pledges on jobs and agriculture, but on contentious economic issues it has taken stands that will offer the party room for manoeuvre if it comes to power.

According to the party document, divestment in public sector units — the most controversial economic issue — will be “approached selectively”. The vague term is in sharp contrast to the Congress’ public pronouncements that profit-making units should not be privatised.

Pledging “change with continuity”, the Congress manifesto has vowed to “broaden and deepen reforms”.

Other than a divergence of opinion over the end-use of funds raised through divestment, the differences between the policies of the Congress and the NDA appear largely semantic.

Congress leaders, too, indicated as much without saying so. Asked how the privatisation policy of the party would be different from that of the NDA, senior leader Pranab Mukherjee, who headed the manifesto drafting panel, said the Vajpayee government was “reckless” whereas the Congress would approach the issue after “deliberate consideration”.

Perhaps keeping in mind its slogan to stick with the poor, the Congress did not go out of its way in the manifesto to reclaim the party’s ground of the original author of the reforms — the perceived fountainhead of the so-called “feel-good” factor the BJP is seeking to milk now.

But the document does not explicitly disown any of the initiatives spearheaded by Manmohan Singh during the pioneering regime of Narasimha Rao either.

The differences that are more pronounced relate to social issues. The manifesto has cracked the whip on communalism, pledging to take the “strictest possible action against those who promote bigotry and hatred”.

The Congress has also reacted to the standoff between the human resource development ministry and the Indian institutes of management. The document says the party would “ensure that all institutions of higher learning in science, technology, social sciences and management will retain the sense of autonomy that they have enjoyed in previous Congress regimes”.

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