The Congress, after its political revival over the last year, in the crucial weeks since the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama, South Kashmir, was confused and defensive in the face of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s hyper-nationalist juggernaut. However, its manifesto, released on April 2, is its first sure-footed move after a series of missteps, including dangerously failed alliances and confused messaging.
With its manifesto, the Congress has made a credible bid to wrest back the political narrative from the Bhartiya Janata Party, by bringing back concerns central to the lives and well-being of ordinary Indians, and focussing also on restoring social harmony and a democratic space. It is not a perfect document, but still remarkable for its scope, and imagination on many fronts.
The Bhartiya Janata Party, on the other hand, has made it amply clear that it will fight the 2019 general elections on an intensely divisive, openly communal agenda. Modi is leading this charge from the front.
In 2014, he spoke of development and hope, allowing communal concerns to surface occasionally, with claims that the Congress government encouraged the “pink revolution” of slaughter of cattle for beef, and what he called the “infiltration” of Bangladeshi refugees.
In 2014, he left it to his party generals to fly the communal flag. This time is markedly different. His election discourse has little reference to development. He has returned to the kind of communal hectoring that resounded in his election speeches in Gujarat ever since the 2002 communal riots in the state. Pakistan frequently surfaced in his election speeches then, as it does now.
The messaging is unambiguous in both cases, that the Congress is a party sympathetic to Muslims, who in turn are loyal to Pakistan and terror. Modi is the hero of the Hindu nation, because he is the only muscular leader who can take on and defeat all three of these enemies, within and outside the nation.
A group of concerned citizens – drawn from the world of scholarship, writing, law, administration, the professions and activism – came together in February under the banner “Reclaiming the Republic” to consult and construct an imagination of what a new government must do to uphold and restore the pledges of the Constitution.
The group was chaired by Justice AP Shah, convened by Prashant Bhushan and Anjali Bhardwaj, and included among others Gopalkrishna Gandhi, Prabhat Patnaik, Gopal Guru, Jayati Ghosh, Aruna Roy, Bezwada Wilson, P Sainath, Syeda Hameed, Vipul Mudgal, Paul Divakar, Nikhil Dey and Yogendra Yadav. I too was part of this.
Our group sees the forthcoming Lok Sabha election as “an opportunity to retrieve and, indeed, reclaim from manipulation and subversion, our legacy of the Republic”.
“The Republic was founded on our Constitution’s resolve to secure justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity for all its citizens. While, over the last seven decades, we cannot claim to have succeeded in ‘redeeming this pledge’, we were strengthened by the conviction that the foundations for the realization of these goals were being laid. There could be and there were, wrong steps, false moves, stumbles. But there was, nonetheless, a sense of our country moving, broadly, on a path shown to it by its founders.”
“Over the last five years, however, we have witnessed…an onslaught at full throttle on the foundational and core principles of citizenship. We have seen, clearly and unmistakably, the institutional pillars of the Republic being dismantled.”
Our collective, therefore, decided to release a manifesto of urgent and actionable reforms in law, policies and institutions for saving and reclaiming our republic, which we hoped that political parties, candidates, campaign organisations, the media and citizens will take note of while developing their agenda for the elections. It is in the light of these proposals that I try to evaluate the Congress manifesto here.
Sedition law and AFSPA
Given its timidity in standing up to the “hyper-nationalist” posturing of the Bhartiya Janata Party, some of the most remarkable pledges of the Congress manifesto are its commitment to repeal the sedition law, which has been misused by the Modi government (and on occasion by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government) to criminalise Left and liberal dissent; to make defamation a civil rather than a criminal offence, to pass a law against custodial torture, and to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act with regard to the immunity it extends armed forces for crimes of rape, torture and murder.
It does not go so far as the full repeal of this law, as we had proposed, but even this partial withdrawal of impunity of men in uniform for grave crimes offers a belated but welcome signal to the people of Kashmir and the North East, that it is at last restoring some hope of human rights of the citizens in these troubled regions.
On lynching and hate violence, once again, the Congress sheds its tentativeness, promising to end impunity, and in particular the accountability of public officials for proven negligence in riots and hate crimes. This again finds echoes in the proposal of our citizens’ manifesto. Both agendas also agree on enacting a comprehensive anti-discrimination law, and the establishment of an equal opportunities commission.
Both the Congress manifesto and the citizens’ manifesto lay a great deal of stress on institutional strengthening to repair the damage caused during the Modi years, and prevent further erosion. The judicial reforms proposed by the citizens’ manifesto include setting up a judicial appointment commissions to select judges at all levels in a rational and transparent manner, and ensuring proper accountability of judges by setting up independent judicial complaints’ commissions empowered to receive and investigate complaints against judges.
The Congress pledges two very different but significant judicial reforms. One is to covert the Supreme Court purely into a constitutional court, and develop a different system to hear appeals, and for ensuring much greater caste, gender and religious diversity in senior judge appointments.
For media reforms, our citizens’ manifesto proposed a Media Freedom Bill along the lines of the First Amendment in the US, which guarantees freedom of expression and automatically removes any arbitrary laws, and an independent, statutory licensing and regulatory authority, free from government control.
The Congress pledge again is different, but bold and far-reaching – to break monopolies, cross-holding of shares and the cartelisation of the media.
On electoral reforms, our collective had called to reverse the recent regressive changes to laws on electoral funding that allow foreign funds, unlimited donations by corporates and anonymous funding mechanisms like electoral bonds, and to bring a comprehensive law for election financing reforms that prescribes electoral expenditure limit for political parties, restrictions on use of cash, stronger disclosure requirements, compliance of disclosure requirements and penalties for non-adherence.
Again, the Congress manifesto goes part of the way with its pledge that anonymous donations will not be allowed, and to create a national election fund to which anyone can contribute.
Social welfare policies
In its promise for “wealth with welfare”, the Congress manifesto significantly acknowledged the importance of redistributive welfare policies, departing from the dogma of market fundamentalists that market reforms would in themselves end poverty. Its most important pledge is to ensure a basic income above poverty for the poorest 20% of India’s households with a monthly income transfer of Rs 6,000.
However, the most intractable challenge of this measure would be how these poorest families would be objectively identified, something the Indian state has never been able to do, leading to dangers of rent-seeking and patronage.
Instead, the citizens’ manifesto had proposed Universal Basic Services, combined with basic income guarantees, but in the form of both rural and urban employment guarantees of 150 days a year at minimum wages, and universal pensions of old persons, single women and persons with disabilities at half the minimum wage.
The Congress manifesto is more limited: it promises to expand rural employment guarantee to 150 days. To spur jobs, it also innovatively pledges to end all clearances except for tax and labour commitments for small units for three years.
Both the citizens’ manifesto and the Congress manifesto agree on high priority to public provisioned healthcare as a right, with universal rights to free medicines, diagnostics, out-patient and hospital care, raising public investment to 3% of the gross domestic product.
The citizens’ manifesto had sought to universalise the public distribution system in rural areas and to add pulses and oil to the public distribution service basket, at least for Antyodaya households, which are the poorest families in India. It called to abolish mandatory biometric authentication and allow other proofs of identity for accessing rights and entitlements. Once again, the Congress manifesto has made a welcome commitment to detach mandatory Aadhar from access to any welfare benefits.
Our manifesto noted that while the demand for education rose in recent years, “public provisioning of education has receded. Education is being privatised and left to low-grade profiteers. The last five years were characterised by a steady hand-over to market forces on one hand, and the state’s active role in eroding the academic autonomy of institutions of higher learning on the other”.
The Congress manifesto promises to remedy this by strengthening public education at all levels, from primary to university levels, and raising public spending on education to 6% of the gross domestic product.
For reviving the farm sector, the Congress pledges a separate farmers budget and a national commission, and that no farmer will be criminalised for defaulting loan repayment.
The citizens’ manifesto is much more detailed, including assurance of procurement of all produce at 50% higher than input costs; and to promote ecological agriculture on a large scale, to bring down cost of production, to conserve and regenerate productive resources like land, water, forests and agro-diversity and to increase food safety and nutrition security.
Financing all of this
One criticism of both the Congress and our citizens’ manifestoes is that they are financially unfeasible. The Congress does not explain how it will raise resources. We, in the citizens’ manifesto, however, seek an active fiscal strategy for raising resources: 20% inheritance tax, wealth tax in rising slabs for wealth above Rs 10 crore, corporate social tax linked to turnover, not profits, green taxes to encourage less carbon emissions, a pollution tax and so on.
We propose to revive the viability of banking and improve access to institutional credit especially for micro, small and medium enterprises. This will require recapitalisation of banks and special focus to provide credit to underserved groups. There is a need to publish a list of large corporate and individual wilful defaulters, recover their assets and take appropriate action against them. If the Congress is to fulfil its promises on welfare, these are nettles it will have to boldly grasp.
2019: A critical election
India is at the cusp of what is not an ordinary election. The Indian republic stands today at a defining crossroads in its history. The country has never been as bitterly divided since Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination as it is today, its institutions never so enfeebled and compromised, and its constitutional freedoms never as gravely threatened, barring the brief interregnum of the Emergency.
The outcome of the coming general elections this summer will therefore resound for generations, determining the course that the people of this teeming land will follow. Whether during the bitter electoral competition that is unfolding in every corner of the country, the Congress manifesto will help rescue the discourse of this election from divisive issues to questions of survival and freedom remains to be seen.