The launch of the Congress’s manifesto Tuesday marked a missed opportunity in this historic Lok Sabha election. Not because this manifesto is a bad document. As far as manifestos of mainstream parties go, this one is more cogent and thought-through than the run-of-the-mill documents. Congress president Rahul Gandhi too made the most of his modest oratorical skills.
The trouble is that the Congress’ manifesto is the right document at the wrong time. Politics is all about timing and context. The Congress is playing normal election games when this election is not an election at all. This is a capture of power through a ritual that has all the external appearances of being a fair democratic election. A decent, nuanced policy document is a virtue in normal times, but not when you face a determined, well-coordinated assault on constitutional democracy. Institutions and values that are at the heart of our Constitution face an unprecedented attack.
In this context, what the Congress does or doesn’t becomes critical. In this election, the big opposition parties carry the responsibility of defending democracy. But so far, we have seen little of the determination and the vision needed at this moment. Everyone in the opposition is busy with their calculus of interest, just when they needed to look at the big picture. As the principal national opposition, the Congress carries the greater burden of expectations.
To be fair, the Congress did focus on the real issues in a bid to bring this election back to the basics. The five priorities listed by Rahul Gandhi are arguably the five big issues that the country should focus on: poverty, farm distress, unemployment, health and the widespread sense of fear.
The proposals put forward by the Congress are mostly serious. There are many design and resource issues with ‘NYAY’, but the idea of direct cash transfer to the poorest is not something to scoff at. Serious economists have discussed similar proposals. This one could be a good starting point for initiating measures to address extreme forms of poverty. My colleagues in the farmers’ movement may not be fully satisfied with the Congress manifesto promises on agriculture. But, their key demands – one-time loan waiver and an institutional mechanism for remunerative prices – do find a place here, although not in a form that we may have wanted. The proposal for a ‘kisan budget’ may not mean anything immediately, but it has the potential to raise awareness on farmers’ issues in national public life.
It is true that any government would find it very hard to fill the 20 lakh-plus vacancies in the central and state governments, but this promise is way ahead of Narendra Modi’s election slogan of two crore jobs a year.
The idea of ‘Seva Mitras’ for each panchayat is not just additional employment, but also has the potential to improve the quality of local governance. The promise of ‘right to healthcare’ does not yet have a road map to back it up, but the move away from private insurance-based model is a step in the right direction.
Besides there are many relevant and sensible proposals in the Congress manifesto that did not make the headlines: right to homestead land for every family, livelihood centre for unorganised labourer, an additional ASHA worker for large villages, generation of employment through restoration of water bodies, extension of Right To Education up to Class XII, use of the Diversity Index for social justice and appointment of Equal Opportunity Commission [Full disclosure: The author was associated, way back in 2007, with a report that recommended the EOC].
The manifesto also promises many steps that are essential to protect our constitutional democracy: scrapping of sedition law, doing away with criminal defamation, reviewing some types of immunities under AFSPA and withdrawing the infamous electoral bond scheme. It also recognises many steps that have been recommended by civil society groups for quite some time: a National Judicial Commission to appoint judges, a similar body to redress complaints against judges, enactment of the Grievance Redressal Bill and the institution of a powerful Environment Protection Authority.
Far from the canard spread by Arun Jaitley, the document merely reiterates broad national consensus on issues of national security. The proposal about review of some aspects of AFSPA is actually milder than the BJP’s promise during the J&K polls to not use AFSPA in the state.
Clearly, the Congress wanted to play it safe. So much so that the manifesto does not even acknowledge the least that should be said about the plight of Muslims under the Modi regime.
If all this policy thinking does not bring the poll agenda back to the basics, we have to look for reasons beyond this manifesto. There is the issue of timing: the Congress came out with major pro-people promises just 10 days before the first round of polling when there is a remote chance of these promises ever reaching the intended audience. I doubt if many farmers will get to know that the Congress has promised a nationwide loan waiver.
Then there is the issue of reach: Congress is focused on tuning when it needs amplification in the face of the biggest propaganda machine of our times. With the TV studios becoming BJP’s party offices and the EC being widely seen as an extension of the PMO, it is not clear if any of the Congress promises would reach the people.
And then, there is the issue of credibility: neither the Congress nor Rahul Gandhi is a convincing carrier of the call to save the republic. Rahul Gandhi makes it a point to remember and remind everyone of the Congress’s legacy just when that legacy is one of its biggest liabilities.
The problem is not that the manifesto is a bad document, the problem is that it is just a document, not the loud and credible political message of hope so badly needed in our country today.
The author is the National President of Swaraj India.