Congress Bets on Welfare Programs – India Real Time – WSJ

India’s Congress party is doubling down on welfare.

Facing what is shaping up to be a steep uphill battle to win a third term in office, Congress on Wednesday outlined a policy agenda that would expand healthcare, housing and other benefits for the poor and disadvantaged.

Rahul Gandhi, who is leading Congress’s campaign in the voting that begins in April, also said a new Congress government would invest $1 trillion in infrastructure projects and remove hurdles to business.

For India’s poor to thrive, he said, “we need to unleash business.”

Still, Congress’s tone is sharply different than the one adopted by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and its standard bearer, Narendra Modi, who emphasizes pro-business policies and infrastructure building – while saying government also needs to help the poor.

During the Congress-led government’s most recent decade in office, subsidy spending has soared, from 459 billion rupees in the year ended March 31, 2005, to an estimated 2.55 trillion in the 12 months ending March 31 of this year.

By sticking with and expanding such programs, Congress is hoping it will appeal to its base in India’s impoverished countryside.

Congress President Sonia Gandhi said if re-elected, Indians would get improved healthcare, an expansion of housing benefits for the landless and a boost in social security hand-outs for the elderly and disabled people.

These promises echo themes that have run through the party’s history and have dominated the political careers of Mrs. Gandhi and her son, Rahul, who is leading Congress’s election campaign.

The central Congress belief: A government must engineer economic equality and inclusive growth, even as it celebrates free markets.

“The future of India is the poor people of India, those are the people the Congress party works for,” Mr. Gandhi said. “The biggest problem I have with the BJP is that the India of the BJP’s dreams is an India where a few people run this country.”

Mr. Gandhi, the party’s vice president who took charge this year, has tried to frame the electoral campaign as a choice between these two approaches.

He has gone after the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi for what he calls an exclusive focus on building roads and airports without addressing the question of who gets access to them.

Mr. Modi’s message, however, is striking a chord with many Indians, who are fed up with government inefficiency, corruption allegations and a slowing economy. Many young voters – even those in rural India who through technology and migration are influenced by urban sentiment – are frustrated with a lack of jobs and strong leadership and are drawn to the BJP’s promise of development.

Opinion polls show widespread dissatisfaction with the current situation in India and Mr. Modi is widely considered the frontrunner for the premiership.

via Congress Bets on Welfare Programs – India Real Time – WSJ.

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