I could have said that Congress’s manifesto released today positions the party as the left of centre, liberal pole of Indian politics, and it would have sufficed. But Narendra Modi has so psyched the principal opposition party that the document has ‘contrarian pessimism’ written all over it instead. From agriculture to economy to social welfare, the manifesto is a sad reflection on Congress’ attempt at creating a please-all roadmap that can have serious consequences for the nation over the next five years. The most troubling aspect of the manifesto is on the issue of national security. So, let’s begin with it.
The office of the National Security Advisor (NSA), created during the Vajpayee government in 1998, has evolved into a pivot of India’s national security architecture over last two decades in response to the increasing complexity of global geopolitics. Also, it has been coterminous with the evolution of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) which has seen centralising tendency within the government of India in response to the messy exercise of democracy that India became post Mandal and Ayodhya. Both UPA-I and UPA-II had powerful occupants in the office. The only reason why the Congress party would now want to dilute the powers of NSA by making its report to Parliament instead is that the combination of Narendra Modi and Ajit Doval have disturbed the Raisina consensus on slow decision making.
While enlisting scrapping of British era sedition law finds mention in the legal reforms section, it would be naïve to believe that the law is only an internal security measure. While misuse is one debate – Congress itself is no stranger to it – India suffers insurgencies from northeast to Kashmir to the left wing extremism affected districts, and just by being on statutes provides the State machinery a tool to restrain forces inimical to the integrity of the nation. Clearly, the only thing that has changed between 2014, when scrapping sedition did not find a place in Congress party manifesto, and today when it does, is the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) episode of February 2016. So, is it safe to conclude that it is politics and not national interest that has guided the Congress party here?
Similarly, despite the imprint of surgical strikes fame General (Retd) DS Hooda on the role of Army in Kashmir valley, the prescription has everything to gladden the hearts of Rawalpindi. Congress has clearly played into the hands of separatist sentiment by recommending a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The promise to dilute deployments of Central Armed Paramilitary Forces (CAPFs) is outright dangerous given the facts on the ground in Kashmir. All this while maintaining silence on the issue of Kashmiri Pandits.
On economy, in two lines the manifesto calls the bluff of the party’s gamechanger minimum income support scheme. First, it calls NYAY – Nyunatam Aay Yojana – a joint project between centre and states. Given that Congress party is in power in only five states in the country as of now, is consensus an assumption here? Two, it calls for financing NYAY through increased revenue without specifying how. Three, it hints at the closure of some ‘non-merit’ subsidies to generate funds for the cash transfer scheme. Clearly a sleight of hand.
Congress party’s panacea for joblessness is a bloated public sector from hospitals to schools to even village panchayats. Wonder if Manmohan Singh, who was sitting on the dais during manifesto release, was consulted on this. Having strongly batted for insurance based healthcare security net in its 2014 manifesto, the only reason Congress does an about turn this time and prefers a public hospitals led system is perhaps because of the manner in which Modi has owned up Ayushman Bharat, having scaled it up from Congress’ Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana!
The most striking turnaround however I found was on the issue of minorities. This is the first time that Congress has refused to take the ownership of the Sachar committee, not mentioning it even once. Also missing is the promise repeated in last four manifestos of endeavouring to provide reservation to backward minorities in the OBC category. In this case, perhaps even Amit Shah has succeeded in psyching it out. In para 24 on institutions, the party proposes that in case of appointments to the Lokpal, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and, in the absence of such a leader, the leader of the largest opposition party should be a full-fledged member of the selection committee. Is that the ambition of the grand old party in 2019?