NEW DELHI, July 8: India’s ruling Congress party moved into damage control on Saturday after an embarrassing U-turn on privatisation sparked rumours that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quitting.

“There are no differences, and will never be, between the party and the prime minister. We stand as one,” Mr Singh’s Congress party spokeswoman Jayanti Natarajan told reporters in New Delhi.

Ms Natarajan was forced to issue the vote of confidence in Mr Singh after disputes erupted between the Congress party and its coalition partners on economic reforms and other issues.

Mr Singh was forced to call off stake sales in two state-run firms in the face of threats from a key ally to withdraw from the coalition in protest over the privatisation plans. The crisis sparked rumours of Mr Singh’s resignation and came after stinging criticism from his own Congress party and the government’s communist allies for rising inflation and higher fuel prices.

In an attempt to stem the mounting criticism, Mr Singh planned to meet the communists, who prop up the government in parliament, but have been harsh critics of Mr Singh’s economic reforms, a Congress official said on Saturday.

He will also meet other coalition partners, the official said. Mr Singh’s Congress needs the support of around 15 other parties, many with widely diverging priorities, to remain in power.

Political analysts and newspaper editorials said the criticism was tarnishing the image and authority of the premier — who as finance minister introduced market reforms in India in 1991 — as well as the government.

MORAL SUPPORT: Apart from back flips forced by Mr Singh’s coalition partners, ‘not one of his recent economic or foreign policy decisions has found moral support from his party’, noted Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Indian Express newspaper, in an article on Saturday.

“The consequences of undermining their own prime minister’s authority will be one more disaster for not just the Congress, but the entire alliance,” Mr Gupta wrote.

The Hindustan Times in an editorial said Mr Singh’s decision to put disinvestments on hold had made the government ‘look weak and vacillating within the country and abroad’. “It appears to be buffeted by the whims of its allies, who, in turn, are unburdened by any principle, ideological or otherwise.”—AFP

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