Out of power for five years, the Congress Party's manifesto for the coming parliamentary elections in India has done enough to bring out once again its traditional Left-of-the-Centre ideological moorings and project a more inclusive and welfare-oriented organisation after its brief flirtation with a slight tilt to the Right for several months last year. The 53-page manifesto, released by party chief Rahul Gandhi on April 2, has been injected with a strong dose of social justice welfare schemes and takes forward the rights-based approach pursued by successive Congress-led coalition governments between 2004 and 2014 when the party was headed by Rahul's mother Sonia Gandhi. Another telltale sign of this is evident in the party's campaign tagline released on Sunday evening, signalling its poll campaign would centre around Rahul's minimum income guarantee scheme for the poorest called “Nyat” (justice).
The opposition party has crafted its manifesto in sync with its determination to keep focus on issues like agriculture sector crisis and joblessness and deals with the subject of internal and national security upfront even at the risk of inviting a strong counter-offensive from ruling Bharatiya Janata Party which has put forward a powerful nationalistic and polarising pitch. By promising a separate budget for farmers and farm loan waiver and a slew of measures to boost employment, the Congress Party is seeking to tap into what it sees as a source of discontent against the BJP on the two issues.
In highlighting the farm sector and joblessness in the manifesto, the Congress, of course, has been encouraged by its victory over the BJP in assembly elections in three key heartland states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh last December. The assessment in the party was that this would set the tone for the parliamentary polls. The two major promises made by the manifesto are: (i) changing the law pertaining to agricultural goods marketing, including exports, to remove all curbs, and (ii) making loan default by farmers a civil offence and not a criminal one. The issue of jobs has come into focus as the government and the Congress Party have been locked in a slugfest over job data. While the opposition has accused the government of hiding the data, the latter has maintained that an expanding Indian economy has created a large number of jobs.
The Congress' rights-based approach is reflected most tellingly in the manifesto's promise to introduce laws to ensure the right to healthcare, compulsory school education and housing, if the party is voted back to power. In contrast to Modi government's insurance-based model for providing universal healthcare, projected as the biggest in the world, the opposition party said it would “vigorously promote and implement” the free public hospital model for the health sector including free diagnostics, out-patient care, medicines and a network of public and private hospitals in the event of hospitalisation. The manifesto also promised to double public expenditure on healthcare to three percent of the GDP by 2023-24. On the education front, the party promises to double allocation for the sector to six percent of the GDP in the next five years and to make schooling from class 1 to 12 in government schools free and compulsory for which it will amend the Right to Education Act.
The rights-based outlook of the Congress manifesto manifests itself succinctly in its promise to repeal Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code relating to sedition, amend the stringent Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), bring new legislation to deal with hate crimes and oppose the Citizenship Amendment Bill which seeks to give Indian citizenship to religious minorities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Congress has often accused the BJP of using the sedition law to suppress dissent. With regard to AFSPA, the manifesto seeks “to strike a balance between the powers of security forces and human rights of people and remove legal immunity for prosecution in cases of enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture.” This is an important change of tactics by the Congress since the weeks in the run-up to the elections in the three heartland states last year when the party had adopted what was widely perceived to be a soft-Hindutva line with Rahul Gandhi's visits to temples and a pilgrimage to Mount Kailash which Hindus believe to be the abode of Lord Shiva. During that time, the Congress had also studiously refused to respond to the BJP's high-pitch campaign over the controversies of the National Register of Citizens in Assam and Citizenship Amendment Bill in order to avoid getting sucked into a debate over polarising issues. None of those things has happened in the run-up to the parliamentary elections.
Rahul Gandhi must have been aware of the fact that by pitching for the repeal of the sedition law and dilution of AFSPA, the Congress runs the risk of BJP further sharpening its nationalist narrative to corner the opposition party. The perceived soft-Hindutva approach was a tactical line earlier but the victory in the heartland states has given the Congress confidence to effect a change in its stand and grapple upfront with the issues of sedition law repeal, opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Bill and softening of the AFSPA. Only time will tell if these changes in the Congress' approach will pay off electorally.
Predictably, the manifesto's liberal stand on civil liberty and internal security as reflected in the proposals on the sedition law and AFSPA drew a prompt and sharp response from senior BJP leader and Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who termed the Congress' proposals as a charter for “Balkanisation” of India by divisive forces. It is likely that in the coming weeks, the BJP would try to paint the Congress as being a sympathiser of those facing sedition charges for a highly controversial incident in Delhi to “commemorate” Afzal Guru, the main convict in the case relating to the terror attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001. It remains to be seen if the Congress Party has the wherewithal to ride out the BJP onslaught at a time when the saffron party has mounted a high-decibel nationalist pitch.
It is not that the Congress has this time totally shed its reticence in the face of the BJP's nationalistic campaign. For instance, the manifesto for the 2019 elections sees the party more circumspect than in the 2014 polls in dealing with the issue of religious minorities, especially Muslims. There is no mention in this year's manifesto of the Rajinder Sachar Committee report which is often cited as the benchmark for assessing the plight of Muslims in India and makes wide-ranging recommendations to empower them. True, the party's latest manifesto does promise to enact a law to “punish” hate crimes and atrocities against “minorities and other vulnerable sections” but goes silent on pushing through—if the Congress returns to power—a law for preventing communal and targeted violence. The 2019 manifesto promises to retain the minority educational institution character of Aligarh Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia and grant constitutional status to the National Commission for Minorities. But unlike the 2014 one, it does not talk about reservation of jobs and seats in educational institutions for minorities. Overall, the emphasis in Congress' manifesto this year on issues of religious minorities is much less compared to that of 2014.
Pallab Bhattacharya is a special correspondent for The Daily Star.