The Congress’s manifesto promises to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and repeal the sedition law have not only invited attacks from the Bharatiya Janata party but also caused a rift within the Opposition party.

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi in particular constantly attacking the manifesto on the campaign trail – denouncing it as a “document of Pakistan’s conspiracies” that insults the national flag – Congress leaders are questioning the wisdom of making such promises.

Nearly every Congress leader spoke to agreed these promises have backfired and enabled Modi to portray theirs as an “anti-national” party which is in league with the “tukde tukde gang”, those who allegedly want to break India up.

“What was the need to include such promises in the manifesto when the senior leadership was aware that Modi was trying to build a nationalist sentiment and presenting himself as the only leader capable of taking on Pakistan,” a Congress leader from Bihar complained. He claimed that even the party’s grassroots workers in Bihar are questioning the rationale behind the decision.

Questioning the political nous of Congress chief Rahul Gandhi’s advisers, the leader claimed they have no idea how electoral politics works in India. “Any right-thinking politician would have advised against making such promises,” he said. “It is suicidal to give Modi a chance to build a narrative of Congress supporting anti-nationals.”

The Congress’s manifesto, released on April 2, pledges to remove Section 124A from the Indian Penal Code, which defines the offence of sedition and “has been misused and, in any event, has become redundant because of subsequent laws”. It also promises to amend the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1958 “in order to strike a balance between the powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens and to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture”.

‘They could have just kept silent’

A Congress leader from Andhra Pradesh who spoke on the condition of anonymity argued “it would have made no difference to voters if these promises were omitted from the final draft”. “It has given the BJP another reason to spread misinformation about our party which is not in our interest,” he said.

He agreed that the BJP has misused the sedition law to target its critics but suggested that the Congress could have removed the law after coming to power without saying so in its manifesto.

Another leader, from Uttar Pradesh, pointed out that since the BJP has made these promises a key campaign issue, the Congress is struggling to put the focus back on such matters as farm distress and rising unemployment. “People were beginning to forget about the air strike on Pakistan and were talking about the failures of the Modi government,” the leader said. “After this manifesto controversy, we are back in TV studios answering the same questions about our commitment to national security.”

The view that these announcements were unnecessary is shared by observers outside the Congress.

Sanjay Kumar of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies contended that the party has harmed itself by not thinking “about the national context” before including such contentious issues in its manifesto. “They could have just kept silent and made these changes if voted to power,” he said.

Kumar pointed out that the controversy has shifted attention away from the party’s other key promises. “They have given the BJP the ammunition just ahead of the Lok Sabha election,” he added.

‘It is a courageous move’

Rajeev Gowda, convener of the Congress’s manifesto committee, dismissed the suggestion that the party has played a bad hand.

He pointed out that the BJP had promised to relax AFSPA during its 2014 Assembly election campaign in Jammu and Kashmir while the Modi government has lifted it from several areas in the North East. So, he argued, “the people are not buying” the BJP’s outrage.

“Our agenda is about freedom for the media, students and anyone else who wishes to speak against the government,” Gowda said. “The sedition law has been misused a lot in the last five years. If anyone is accused of waging war against India, then we have laws such as Defence of India Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to deal with them. Why are we still sticking to an archaic law like sedition?”

In any case, he said, the Congress has been speaking against the sedition law from before it was mentioned in the manifesto.

Some senior Congress leaders have indeed been criticising the colonial law. On January 16, former Union minister Kapil Sibal accused the Modi government of misusing the law and demanded that it be scrapped.

He was responding to the Delhi police charging with sedition former Jawaharlal Nehru University students, including Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid.

P Chidambaram weighed in by describing the sedition charges against the students as absurd.

After these two Congress leaders came out against the sedition law, Gowda recalled, “people called and asked us not to make it a poll promise”. “I spoke to Chidambaram then and he said that we should stick to our position that this is an archaic law which needs to go,” he added.

The Congress then made “a conscious choice”, Gowda said, to protect those who are “suffering or are being victimised”. “It is a courageous move,” he added. “AFSPA has also been misused in certain parts, leading to rape and torture. We want to bring an end to this and if the BJP does not want this, they should publicly say they are happy with rape and torture.”

In spite of the criticism, Gowda is confident that his party “will change the narrative” and put the focus of the election campaign back on “real issues affecting the common man”. “Why is the BJP picking up only these issues?” he asked. “Why aren’t they talking about the other promises made in our manifesto? They are aware that if they do, it would bring the focus back to jobs, economy and farm distress, which they are clearly avoiding.”

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