India ruling party ally shrugs off Congress barb

India's food minister, a key ally of the ruling Congress party, made an apparent jibe at Congress scion Rahul Gandhi on Sunday, after the powerful son of party chief Sonia Gandhi blamed coalition politics for rapid inflation.

India is battling the highest inflation of any major Asian economy, and spiralling food and fuel prices have damaged voter confidence in the Congress-led government and highlighted stresses in the multi-party coalition.

Food and agriculture minister Sharad Pawar shrugged off Gandhi's remarks, Business Standard reported on Sunday, as opposition parties attacked the government for a 4.5 percent rise in petrol prices imposed overnight by state-run fuel retailers.

"The decisions regarding price rises are taken collectively. The prime minister, his economic adviser, the finance minister, the home minister, myself and the planning commission's deputy chairman take periodic reviews," Pawar was quoted as saying.

"Besides, there is an empowered group of ministers which reviews the situation and takes necessary decisions to tackle price rises."

Pawar's defence of collective decision-making in the coalition government was a subtle admonishment of Gandhi, seen by many as the prime minister-in-waiting despite his lack of cabinet experience.

National Congress Party chairman Pawar brings nine seats to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's government. His remarks do not threaten the ruling coalition, but signal frustration with the failure to tame high inflation.

Rahul Gandhi, general secretary of the Congress party, blamed the "compulsions" of coalition politics for undermining New Delhi's ability to control rising prices last week.

"It was a single party then. Now, it is a coalition and has some compulsions," Gandhi said with reference to the government of his grandmother and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Two days after the government released a list of measures to tackle inflation, state-run fuel retailers raised the price of petrol by 4.5 percent at midnight on Saturday, attracting strong criticism from opposition parties.

"This hike is totally unjustified. This is nothing but loot of the common man by the government," opposition Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Prakash Javadekar told reporters.

"Food inflation is at 18 percent while inflation is at 9 percent. This is the worst gift that a government can give to the people in New Year."

Bharat Petroleum Corp raised petrol prices by 2.53 rupees (5.5 U.S. cents) a litre, Hindustan Petroleum Corp by 2.54 rupees a litre, and Indian Oil Corp , India's biggest retailer, by 2.50 rupees a litre, in the second set of hikes this month due to high crude prices.

Singh's government, also battling a series of billion-dollar corruption scams, is under pressure for failing to implement major structural reforms to control prices.

A recent poll showed voter discontent with the Congress party would result in a loss of 40 seats in a general election, threatening its majority and damaging its ability to form a working coalition government.

India's headline inflation rose an annual 8.43 percent in December, following a 7.48 percent rise in November, as food inflation hit a year-high this month before easing marginally to 16.91 percent last week.

 

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