One of the serious accusations against the Congress party has been that the party has drifted away from its ideology of secularism, socialism, and democracy. Some of the actions of the congress governments in the past had given the impression that the party was adopting soft Hindutva in view of gaining the support of the Hindu majority. A few items of the manifesto of the Congress party in Madhya Pradesh before the election to the state assembly in November 2018 were really disappointing to the secular minded people. The manifesto included items like developing Ram Path- a mythical route taken by Lord Ram during his 14 year exile, commercial production gaumutra and kanda (cow dung cake) and setting up of gaushalas in every gram panchayat and taking care of the injured cows. It was so distressing that the media termed it “Ram-Narmada-Gaumutra Manifesto”.
On the contrary the manifesto of the Congress party released by the Congress chief Rahul Gandhi in the presence of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh on April 2 gives the impression that the Congress party is gaining self confidence and returning to its original ideology. Some of the provisions in this regard are scrapping the sedition law, making defamation a civil offence, establishing National Judicial Commission (NJC) to select judges, pass a new law to prevent torture, amend AFSPA to remove certain immunities and change the law that allows detention without trial.
Some of these issues will be used by the rival BJP to target congress as an anti-Hindu and anti-national party. Amit Shah, the BJP President, accused the Congress of demoralizing the armed forces because of its promise to amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA). The objective of this amendment is to “strike a balance between the powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens”. Arun Jaitley, the Union Finance Minister, has said that some of the ideas of the Congress manifesto are dangerous and have been framed by Rahul Gandhi’s friends, “ the tukde tukde gang”. “ Tukde Tukde Gang” is often used with hashtag to club together all left-liberals as anti-nationals who want India literally broken up in pieces.
During the five year rule of BJP any criticism of the Sangh Parivar and Hindutva ideology was branded as a sign of an antinational. The sedition law was misused to put the social activists behind the bars. It was used to silence and threaten the critics of the Modi Government. There has been widespread criticism of the misuse of the AFSPA that led to gross violation of human rights. The decision of the Congress party to include these two items in its manifesto is indeed an expression the self confidence of the party. It shows that the party is ready to fight for the protection of human rights.
Another important item in the manifesto is the promises to end mob violence and lynching, and prevent hate crimes and atrocities against Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities and women. The Modi regime has been notorious for the proliferation of hate crimes and mob violence. The BJP leaders, including the union ministers, liberally used hate speech. Instead of condemning lynching by the cow vigilantes, the BJP leaders, including the PM, often kept silence. Sometimes they overtly and covertly supported the hooligans. Hence there is an urgent need for putting an end to the spread of the venom of hatred and revenge.
The promise to pass a law on privacy and restrict the use of Aadhaar to its original purposes is also urgently needed. The BJP government created a hell for the ordinary people, especially the poor, by making Aadhaar compulsory for each and everything. In February 2017, the central government made Aadhaar-seeding and Aadhaar-based biometric authentication mandatory for availing ration in Public Distribution System (PDS). According to the official figures on the Food Department website of Jharkhand state, the Aadhaar of 68.8 lakh out of 2.62 crore registered in PDS were yet to be linked with the family ration card till February 2019. As a result lakhs of families were denied food under the PDS. It was reported in the media that 19 persons allegedly died of starvation in Jharkhand in the last two years. They were denied their grain entitlement because of the Aadhaar related issues.
The Modi government tried to weaken the autonomy of some institutions that are vital to the very existence of democracy. Against this backdrop the Congress has promised to revitalise institutions that were “brazenly undermined in the last five years” like the Reserve Bank of India, Election Commission, Central Information Commission and Central Bureau of Investigation. This is a commitment on the part of the Congress to safeguard the democratic institutions.
The campaign for the Lok Sabha election 2019 appears to be one without any substance. The political parties, instead of presenting creative and constructive programmes for finding solutions to the crucial problems facing the country, have been indulging in personal attacks and character assassination. The issues included in the Congress manifesto may change the style, content and direction of the political discourse. It appears that the Congress has focused on the issues of people.
Narendra Modi had promised creation of 20 million jobs a year; but it miserably failed to provide jobs to the 12 million people joining the job market annually in India. India's unemployment rate hit a 45-year-high of 6.1 per cent in 2017-18, as per the National Sample Survey Office's (NSSO's) periodic labour force survey (PLFS) of the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. Fearing backlash in the election the government has not put the data on the public domain. Against this backdrop the Congress has rightly given top priority to job creation. Giving impetus to small and medium sized companies as well as start ups is one of the means proposed. The viability of the measures proposed in the manifesto is to be tested on the ground. Among other things it has promised to increase the number of days of employment under MNREGA from 100 to 150.
The BJP had to pay heavily in the election to the three states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan because of its failure to address farmers’ distress. The second topmost priority of the Congress is addressing the issues of the farmers. It promises to present a “Kisan Budget” every year and establish a permanent National Commission on Agricultural Development and Planning. The party also promised remunerative prices, lower input costs and access to institutional credit for farmers. The economists are highly sceptical on the farm loan wave adopted by the Congress governments.
Quality education to the poor is the most effective means by which the widening gap between the rich and the poor can be bridged. The welfare programmes keep the poor alive; but they will continue to remain poor unless and until they get quality education. The political parties in India have purposely neglected education, especially education of the poor. Against this backdrop the promise of the Congress party to enhance the budgetary provision for education up to 6% of the GDP by 2023-24 is to be appreciated. Making education from class 1 to 12 free and compulsory in public schools will be of no use if the quality of education in the public schools is not drastically improved. Free and compulsory education to the children up to the age of 14 as per the Right to Education Act has not produced the expected results.
The party also has promised to pass Women’s Reservation Bill in the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha, reserving 33% seats for women in the Lok Sabha and Legislative Assemblies and reserve 33% in all posts or vacancies in the central government. Even without putting in place a law the political parties could have given 33% seats to women while deciding their candidates for election. Unless and until the men in the political parties change their mindset 33% reservation will not make much difference in the political empowerment of women in India.
Since the BJP failed to deliver on most of the promises made in 2014, the party and its leader, PM Modi, may continue to harp on the emotional issues like nationalism. Addressing an election meeting in Arunachal Pradesh PM Modi said, "On one hand this chowkidar is standing here trying to protect the country and on the other hand this power-hungry Congress has stooped so low. Is the Congress's hand with the citizens or with anti-nationals?" The Congress has done well by presenting its vision and mission for the people of India before the other parties released their manifestos. Now the Congress leaders have to focus on the issues they have highlighted in the manifesto rather than indulging in personal attacks of BJP leaders. Let Rahul Gandhi and team give leadership to a culture of electioneering based on issues.
(Published on 8th April 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 15)