Friday, February 25, 2011

Indian rally raises pressure on Singh

(FT) -- Pressure mounted on Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, as thousands of workers marched in the capital to protest against inflation.

The opposition has been seeking to capitalise on the weakening position of Mr Singh, who is reeling from a spate of corruption scandals that threaten to undermine his reputation for integrity. His ability to manage the economy is also being called into question as India battles the highest inflation of any major Asian economy.

Wednesday's march of daily wage labourers, organised by the leftist Centre of Indian Trade Unions, highlighted concerns that Mr Singh had failed to control inflation and that his ruling Congress party was not delivering on its promise of "inclusive growth", but instead excluding all but a few from the benefits of fast economic growth.

The demonstration drew an estimated 40,000 people from across India. It was the biggest protest in Delhi since a march against corruption this year drew many, mostly middle class, people on to the streets.

Sushilabai Marawi, a farm labourer from the western state of Maharashtra, said: "We earn R120 ($2.65) a day. How can we afford to eat when costs are so high, from rice and wheat to sugar and vegetables? We want to send a message to the leaders of this country."

The left and right are levelling severe criticism against Mr Singh's tolerance of high inflation before the national budget on Monday. Mr Singh, 78, has pleaded on national television that he is not a "lame duck" prime minister.

The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, emboldened by its victory this week in forcing the government to agree to a parliamentary investigation into a high profile telecoms scandal, has launched a stinging attack on Mr Singh's pedigree as one of India's top financial bureaucrats.

"What use is your experience as a distinguished economist if you are unable to really save the common man from the entire gambit of inflation that has set in in the last three years?" asked Arun Jaitley, a senior BJP leader.

Yashwant Sinha, a former BJP finance minister, challenged the government's prized high growth strategy, arguing it was counterproductive if it was also accompanied by high inflation. He warned India had returned to a period of over-stimulating "excesses", reminiscent of 20 years ago, by running wide fiscal and current account deficits.

Last week, Mr Singh publicly acknowledged more could have been done to curb inflation. But he said his government had wanted to keep intact India's growth story and the recovery from the global financial crisis.

The prime minister had initially forecast that inflation, currently at 8.2 per cent, would fall to below 6 per cent by the end of last year. He has since revised his forecast to 7 per cent by the end of March.

© The Financial Times Limited 2011

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