‘Nyay to create wealth, provide welfare’

Columnist  | Anita Katyal

Opinion, Op Ed

As for scrapping the sedition law, it is part of our freedom agenda, says Rajeev Gowda.

Congress Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda

As convenor of the Congress Party’s election manifesto committee, Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda played a key role in preparing the party’s manifesto which was released last week. In a freewheeling interview with Anita Katyal, he talks about the extensive public outreach undertaken by the manifesto committee in preparing the document, how the top-up scheme for the poor was converted into a direct income benefit scheme, the party’s stand on AFSPA and the political situation in his home state of Karnataka.

How is this manifesto different from the earlier documents and how did you go about preparing it?
It is true that in the past manifestos were prepared by senior leaders but this is the first time, in my knowledge, that this kind of public outreach was undertaken. We held extensive consultations with the public both offline and online. In addition to using email, websites, and WhatsApp, we also had something called change.org where people signed petitions on various issues… more than two lakh people signed in. We tried to accommodate all their concerns in the manifesto. Clearly, the message had gone out that the Congress is willing to listen and is willing to act by actually putting their suggestions in the manifesto.

An election manifesto is not generally taken seriously…
I agree manifestos earlier were full of motherhood and apple pie statements. Having said that whenever I am asked if the manifesto should be taken seriously, I refer to the exercise we undertook in the last Karnataka election. One of our central points was that the government made 161 promises and 153 were fulfilled. This is a society where there is a certain kind of accountability. There are many activist groups which reached out to us, they will be keeping an eye on us and they will hold us accountable. The fact is that manifestos are no longer random things… they need to be readable and actionable. 

The Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay), or the income benefit scheme offered by your party is the centerpiece of this manifesto. Is it true that Raghuram Rajan and Thomas Piketty were consulted in conceptualising the scheme?
That job was entrusted to my colleague Praveen Chakravarty. He’s the one who consulted experts and I’m confident that the two names you mentioned have been consulted. But I was not directly involved in this exercise.

What was the extent of P. Chidambaram’s involvement in conceptualising Nyay? And did you consult former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh?
As chairman of the manifesto committee, Mr Chidambaram worked closely with all the sub-groups and attended many public and closed-door consultations. And when it came to writing the manifesto, it is his language. He was actively involved in conceptualising Nyay. From within the party, he was one of the co-creators of the programme.

As for Dr Singh, Mr Chidambaram and I took the manifesto to him once the draft was ready. It was later in the process. I brought up some more issues during the discussion and he mentioned that some of them may not be fiscally viable. One of them was doing more on the farm loan business.

So then you decided to simplify it…
After a lot of work, we arrived at the figure of Rs 6,000 per month, which amounts to Rs 72,000 per year per family for 20 per cent of the poor. The Congress president had initially said that it will be a top-up scheme. Pegging the average income of the targeted beneficiary at Rs 12,000 per month, it was proposed that the shortfall will be made up by the government. The basic idea was to reach that level of income but topping was not found to be feasible right now as we first need to know each person’s individual income… and that keeps changing. So it was simpler to go in for direct benefit transfer of a certain amount.

 A lot questions are being asked about the feasibility of this scheme and how you will raise resources to fund it.
 Have you asked the Prime Minister how he is going to double the income of farmers? Basically, we plan to roll it out in phases… start with a pilot project and move ahead once we are satisfied that we have the basics figured out. We expect it to be less than one per cent of the GDP in the first year and less than two per cent of the GDP in the second year. This will pump in resources, push up consumption and remonetise the economy. Besides, the GDP is also growing.

By promising doles, the Congress has been accused of indulging in “welfarism” and that you want to ensure that the poor stay poor.
One of the things we want to do is to build night shelters for the homeless. That’s “welfarism”. So should we let the homeless die in the cold? We have to be a compassionate society… it’s part of our agenda. Mr Chidambaram put it nicely when he said that we want to create wealth and provide welfare. We are focused on creating wealth but we also want to make sure that some of that wealth is shared with the less fortunate amongst us. These are people who are worried about their survival. Giving them a little bit of money will free them of that burden.

An impression has been created that the Congress is anti-corporate sector and anti-big industry…
 Without them, where would we be? We have laid down our philosophy very clearly in our manifesto. There is a clear role for the private sector — we want to see that demand picks up, investment picks up and that manufacturing reaches 25 per cent of the GDP. We are open to foreign capital… we have no problem with the market. In fact, we are often accused by activists of following neoliberal policies. On the one hand we are neoliberal ,and on the other, we are welfarist. Actually, we are a bit of both.

The BJP has accused the Congress of being soft on terror and undermining the security forces because of your stand on AFSPA.
The BJP also pledged to get rid of AFSPA in certain parts of the Northeast — please see their manifesto. They are twisting what we said. We said we will balance the needs of the security forces with the protection of human rights. We said no one should take shelter behind the AFSPA for crimes such as torture and rape. If people say security forces should be allowed to rape and torture, then we have a bit of a disagreement here. After all, victims of this are our own citizens.

The BJP is also attacking you for promising to scrap the sedition law.
 As for scrapping the sedition law, it is part of our freedom agenda. We must let freedom ring, to quote Martin Luther King. We all know it has been misused like crazy by this government. You criticise the Prime Minister and you are jailed under the sedition law and you protest against the Sterlite factory and you are put in jail under the sedition law. And we don’t lose anything by doing away with the sedition law. The Defence of India Act and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act both take care of the offence of waging war against the state.

The manifesto’s focus on minorities has been muted — is it in line with the party’s recent soft Hindutva approach?
This is a case of damned if we do and damned if we don’t. But the central issue which came out in our consultations with the delegations of minorities was security. So we say we will have a law to deal with lynch mobs.