Two broad points should be made about the Congress election manifesto, released earlier this week. First is the commitment to increase government expenditure in many ways: Double general government expenditure on health to 3 per cent of GDP, double expenditure on education to 6 per cent of GDP, spend close to 2 per cent of GDP on the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY), the hand-out programme, by the second year of its operation, and increase defence expenditure in relation to GDP. Taken together, they constitute an expansion of government expenditure by somewhere between 5 per cent and 7 per cent of GDP. But in the 52 sections of the 55-page manifesto, there is almost nothing on how resources will be found for all of this, other than an anodyne statement in the NYAY context on raising revenue and cutting expenditure.
The second key aspect of the manifesto concerns an entirely different set of issues, to do with individual liberties. The Congress deserves generous applause for taking the position that it has on the sedition law and various laws that provide for detention without trial — some of them dating back to colonial times and some worse than the laws imposed by colonial rulers. The party has also promised to de-criminalise defamation (as most other democracies already have), and to review the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Going further, it promises to enact legislation against custodial torture, hold the police accountable to an independent body, make bail the norm rather than the exception, and to set selected under-trials free, depending on the nature of the accusation and how much time has already been spent in jail. The manifesto mentions that the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code, such as the one on sedition, have been misused; the question is whether such misuse is inevitable.
It is doubtful whether even this second lot of promises is easily deliverable. For instance, court orders are already on record asking governments to free under-trials who have served half the maximum sentence prescribed for the crimes they are accused of committing, but no action has followed. Still, the fact that a national party has come down so unequivocally on the side of individual freedoms is to be welcomed wholeheartedly when the issue of national security has been so framed as to encroach on those freedoms, when even asking questions is said to be anti-national, and when the Congress itself has in the past been guilty of encroaching on the same freedoms, including press freedom.
There will also be legitimate questions about whether such sweeping changes are practicable in a short span of time. Third-degree torture is almost the primary method of interrogation by the police. If a new law rules this out of order, and the police are to be held accountable in a way that they are not currently, the system will need to radically re-orient the police force and invest in training. How quickly can that be done? Similarly, there can be legitimate questions about whether the state does need some special powers when it is faced with armed revolt in parts of the country. The issue is how to provide for such situations while building in effective safeguards. Those questions are for later. For the moment, it is enough that a major political party has come down on the side of constitutional freedoms and internationally recognised human rights.
By Special Arrangement with Business Standard