The Congress Party’s manifesto released earlier this week makes a bold attempt to rescue the electoral narrative from the shrill hyper-nationalistic and increasingly majoritarian pitch it was reduced to courtesy the ruling BJP. While the focus so far has been on the manifesto’s five pillars — the minimum income scheme Nyay, jobs, farm distress, healthcare as well as education — there is more in the Congress’ litany of poll promises.
It signifies the attempt of the party to reinstate ideation in the political process.
The party’s serious approach to its poll promises is in sharp contrast to the BJP, which released its electoral charter in 2014 on the day when the first phase of polls were held. Even its state units were not very serious ever about manifestos; in Gujarat, before the 2013 Assembly elections, the charter was released just one day before the first phase of voting. Undoubtedly, interest the Congress manifesto has generated across the country, and the flak it drew due to its lackadaisical routine earlier has forced the BJP to be more serious about its manifesto this time.
The Congress also emphasised the effort and engagements of its manifesto committee in the course of crowd-sourcing ideas, besides incorporating inputs from domain experts. Union ministers like Arun Jaitley, Nirmala Sitharaman, Ravi Shankar Prasad and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi have damned the Congress manifesto. This shows that the BJP has been forced to take note of the document.
The Congress committee tasked with drafting this charter has done its job and now the challenge is for the party campaigners and publicists to take the message to the people. Most important, they have to neutralise the trust deficit among people due to a poor track record in fulfilling earlier promises and also because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sustained campaign against the Congress. He certainly never loses an opportunity to depict it as doing very little for the people despite being in office for close to six decades.
The Congress manifesto contains promises in three domains and is an emphatic statement of its pro-people and democratic political intent. In statements made while introducing the document and answering media queries, Congress president Rahul Gandhi claimed that India was facing an “economic emergency”. This phrase portrays livelihood concerns among people stemming from the lack of jobs and rising rural distress coupled with the killer blows of demonetisation and slipshod introduction of the Goods and Services Tax. Of the five most visible pillars of the manifesto, while Nyay, government jobs and addressing farm distress are the three most visible remedies, the undertakings on healthcare and education are also significant. The BJP is expending substantial energy trashing Nyay, and this underscores its anxiety as being seen positively by the people.
Significantly, in the political domain, the Congress reclaims its secular position and sheds its recent diffidence. Rahul Gandhi, in the manifesto’s foreword, unambiguously plugs for Indians being “free from fear, free to live and work and pray and eat and love and marry according to their wishes, free from poverty and free to pursue their ambitions”. Some days ago, in an interview, BJP president Amit Shah claimed his was the only party which was promoting its ideology. While this may have been true when the Congress was steering clear from articulating concerns of religious minorities, this is not the case any longer. Mr Gandhi contended in the note that the alternate to the Congress vision was an “India governed by a pernicious ideology that will trample upon people’s rights, institutions, conventions and the healthy differences that are the essence of a multi-cultural country”.
The Congress manifesto is not ambiguous in its criticism of the BJP and is unworried about annoying Hindu sentiment. The document stated that “hate crimes and atrocities against the minorities and other vulnerable sections of the people have increased” since 2014, and that the “perpetrators of these crimes walk on the streets with impunity”. The Congress has found the confidence once again to remain committed to non-discrimination, equal opportunity in employment and the right to establish minorities’ educational institutions. Besides cocking a snook at the BJP on the issue of upholding the minority character of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia, the Congress Party has pledged a new law to prevent and punish hate crimes.
In the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack and the airstrikes at Balakot in Pakistan, the BJP campaign has revolved around national and internal security with Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving disproportionate space to his vituperative themes of Pakistan and its alleged allies in India (those questioning the government on security and diplomatic matters). The Congress, particularly, is showing as having buckled down not just after 26/11, but even on matters like testing of A-Sat.
To counter the BJP’s claim of being the sole upholder of national security, the Congress manifesto points out that defence spending has fallen after Mr Modi assumed office and pledges to reverse this slide. The manifesto provides a “natsec shield” to the Congress by pledging immediate modernisation of the armed forces and providing a statutory basis to the National Security Council (NSC) and the office of the national security adviser (NSA). It is certain that the Congress has introduced this significant point to the debating table — making the NSA answerable to Parliament — in a direct response to the growing cult around Ajit Doval and the centralisation of powers in the PMO. The Congress remains committed to a broad base of decision-making processes on matters of national and internal security.
Despite knowing that the BJP would question its commitment to internal security and for lowering the morale of the security forces, the Congress displayed political courage by promising to modify AFSPA and to scrap the sedition law. The Congress pledged a more humane government without undermining internal and national security. It makes an important point — laws do not have to loaded against citizens to make the nation more secure. When added to the alterations in the judiciary, the Congress manifesto will force the BJP to address issues which it might otherwise have ignored....