NEW DELHI • India's main opposition Congress party has pledged to tackle unemployment and poverty as it seeks to wrest power from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling coalition, just days ahead of a national election.
Led by Mr Rahul Gandhi, the party released its election manifesto yesterday, promising to rid India of poverty by 2030, waive farm loans, introduce a single sales tax and reserve a third of all government jobs for women.
It repeats a commitment to provide 20 per cent of poor families across the country with a payment of 72,000 rupees (S$1,417) annually through their bank accounts, in order to ensure their basic wage does not fall below US$174 (S$236) per month.
With joblessness at a 45-year high of 6.1 per cent, Mr Gandhi has pledged to fill 400,000 posts at a federal level and urged state governments to fill two million vacant jobs by the end of March next year.
"Unemployment is the gravest challenge to the country and job creation is the highest concern for the economy," the manifesto read. "In the last five years, there's been a dramatic rise in unemployment."
The manifesto should make an impact, said political science professor Sudha Pai at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "It's certainly a very progressive document," she said.
"The income support programme seems doable and more plausible than anything the Modi government has put forward in the budget. But the main problem will be the implementation, especially in India's corrupt northern states."
India's general elections will take place in seven phases between April 11 and May 19, with the results to be announced on May 23.
Congress said it would revive the economy by giving a push to private investment, government spending, domestic consumption and exports.
The manifesto proposes raising the share of India's manufacturing from 16 per cent of gross domestic product to 25 per cent in five years.
The party aims to achieve a 3 per cent budget gap goal by 2021. It also plans to merge state-run banks and "reverse the unwarranted and illegal interference by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government into the functioning of the RBI (Reserve Bank of India)".
Businesses that employ a certain percentage of women workers will also get incentives if the Congress party assumed power after the polls, the manifesto said.
Congress also pledged to waive outstanding farm loans across the country, as it did when it formed the government in the states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan in December last year.
"If a farmer can't repay debt, it would be a civil offence, not a criminal offence," Mr Gandhi said, committing to creating a separate budget for farmers if elected to office.
"There is a need to jump-start the economy... As farmers start spending money, growth will be revived."
The farm loan waiver is one of India's most popular political tools. In 2009, it helped Mr Manmohan Singh's Congress-led government return to power, with a scheme in which 37 million farmers benefited from waivers of 522 billion rupees.
The ruling BJP has run a narrative based on polarisation at the expense of national security, said Mr Gandhi.
"The BJP has divided India in the last five years. Congress will work towards uniting India," he added, challenging Mr Modi to a debate on national security and corruption.
Mr Modi has been criticised by the opposition for not fulfilling his promise of creating 10 million jobs each year, a pledge that helped him win over India's youth in the 2014 election.