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Dissection: Congress Manifesto 2019 - April 03, 2019

Congress released its Manifesto yesterday and expectedly has ventured into promising things that it will find hard to deliver. Going by its own record however, it should not surprise one beyond a limit. At the outset it is important to note that compared to its previous two manifestos at least, this is appears to be an outcome of a more exhaustive efforts in terms of gathering the information on ground to be factored in. The focus however, it seems, was restricted only on identifying those issues which apparently were ‘against government’ rather than engaging in sincere ideological-cum-practical exercise to release a ‘promise-card’ that is true to Congress’s own values and evolution so far. It seems the diligence was only in gathering and compiling anti-government agendas and produce a manifesto that would enable the Congress to fit itself in the broad ‘anti-government’ coalition which it is finding hard to get in.

Let’s begin with the IPC Section 124 Sedition Law, which the manifesto promises to “Omit of the Indian Penal Code” further stating that it “has been misused and, in any event, has become redundant because of subsequent laws”. While the argument that Sedition law has become archaic and needs substantive reforming to restrict only to serious offences has lot of credence, consider this - this promise is coming from a party which used the same provisions numerous time when in power. What explains ‘this sudden change of heart’ may be inexplicable for many, but it becomes hard not to believe that it is inserted only to capitalize on whatever displeasure was generated about the government after the infamous JNU incident.

Further it 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”. The tone and blatancy of such a promise is particularly alarming as it reflects a sense of complacency in dealing with such a sensitive issue which is having direct bearing on national security. For a party which has been in government for so long is expected to be well equipped with the realities in the ‘disturbed areas’ where AFSPA is in place. True, there are excess of the state which needs to be checked but a more nuanced and indeed deliberative approach is required, which inevitably includes the consultation with Armed Forces, to make any changes with the act. This is precisely why there was a strong opposition from within the congress as well with regards to changes in AFSPA. The silence of manifesto in this critical aspects provides the window to doubt the true intentions of the congress.

Complacency stares harder when Manifesto approaches the Kashmir issue. Acknowledging “the unique history of the State and the unique circumstances under which the State acceded to India that led to the inclusion of Article 370”, the manifesto declares that “Nothing will be done or allowed to change the Constitutional position”. This is rather ironic given the fact that the concerned provision itself is “temporary” in nature as stated in the Constitution itself and moreover it goes against the stated wishes of many tall leaders, including that of Congress, who wished its timely removal.

Talking of National Security, Congress Manifesto comes up with rather vague and unconvincing promises on National Security specially when seen in the context of its performance in dealing with National Security for 10 long years. It promises to “ensure that defence spending is increased to meet the requirements of the Armed Forces” and to “expedite all modernisation programmes of the armed forces in a transparent manner”. It is noteworthy that defence preparedness suffered a major stagnation when the party was in government for 10 long years. There are some welcome signs in this regard however, especially the indicated efforts to institutionalize the National Security Architecture by providing “a statutory basis to the National Security Council (NSC) and the office of National Security Adviser (NSA)”. Other than this, there is customary reiteration of traded promise such “to take strategic and hard measures to defend the territorial integrity of India and ensure the safety of our people”, with no specific mention of any approach or direction. Pronouncements like these thus fail to inspire confidence.

Equally vague and directionless is the promise on Foreign Policy. A more concerning aspect however is the indication in the manifesto to undo the direction foreign policy has taken in recent times to make it in tune with the contemporary structural realities. The falling back on a redundant ‘non-alignment’ as an ideological foundation of foreign policy for instance is one such point which should concern us all. The manifesto is literally silent on major issues regarding the nuclear policy, space policy, its relations with major powers and its approach towards building new partnerships. Instead it promises an unnecessary institution of “National Council on Foreign Policy consisting of members of the Cabinet Committee on Security, scholars, domain experts and diplomats to advise the Government on matters concerning foreign policy”. This sounds again like a Planning Commission which will be used to park ‘government sympathizers’ to influence decision making.

In the economic policy the manifesto is promising too many things, arguably incompatible with each other, only to make them un-implementable. For instance, the manifesto declares “Congress economic philosophy is based on embracing the idea of an open and liberal market economy, creation of wealth, sustainable development, and reduction of inequalities and assurance of welfare of all sections of the people. “Such growth” it further adds, “will be driven by the private sector and a viable public sector and underpinned by a robust system of social security”, - a clear déjà vu of Nehruvian mixed-economy model where neither the state nor the private enterprise was able to flourish. Moreover, there is clear turn towards entitlement from empowerment strategies which is certainly going to disturb the fiscal discipline. Take for instance the “Revolutionary Idea” of NYAY which promises guaranteed cash transfer of Rs. 72,000 a year to target population of 5 crore families who constitute the poorest 20 per cent of all families. The expected expenditure on the ‘revolutionary idea’ is estimated to be more than the present defence budget prompting a severe dent on the financial resources of the country. It is so revolutionary that it’s highly unlikely to be implemented in letter and spirit- both. But here’s the thing - the Congress promises to implement NYAY, also to increase the defence expenditure, and increase the number of days of MNREGA and all this without explaining how the finances are going to be managed. Only a financial miracle can implement all of this and yet keep our economy intact.

Another contradiction is the promise to re-constitute Planning Commission to “to formulate medium and long-term perspective plans and to function as an independent expert body to perform crucial functions in a federal system”. It is ironic for a party whose economic philosophy is based on embracing the idea of an open and liberal market economy and who is concerned about “plenty of bureaucratic interference” is falling back again on “medium and long term planning” through renewed Planning Commission. To reconstitute Planning Commission, which had no parliamentary approval, constitutional or statutory provision and which was notorious for being a parking lot for government sympathizers, doesn’t speak well of a party attempting an economic overhaul. It appears, the makers of manifesto were thinking of so many things that they forgot to think about whether it can be implemented effectively or not.

Clearly, Congress Manifesto lacks a coherent vision, a well thought out roadmap and direction on which it intends to lead India if at all it comes to power. It is a purely a political document which is based on two planks- anti-governmentism on one hand and impractical populism to lure people on the other. There’s nothing wrong with manifesto being a political, but it is also a place where a party explains it direction and vision for a country. If its manifesto is anything to go by – it is clear the congress still lacks it.

- Prof. Akshay Ranade