NEW DELHI: Framing the Lok Sabha polls as a contest between two ideologies, Congress on Tuesday released a manifesto that seeks to sharply differentiate the party from BJP by promising to scrap the sedition law, dilute AFSPA and withdraw the citizenship amendment bill, besides offering populist pledges on jobs, income support for the poor, healthcare and education.
The political vision behind the manifesto breaches previous restraint on moving too far from centrist positions on politically sensitive national security and socially contentious issues out of concern that it may not suit the mainstream taste and provide rival BJP an opportunity to accuse Congress of catering to fringe interests.
Congress’s “activist” push acquires significance because of the inevitability that a promise to do away with the sedition law will immediately be portrayed by BJP as a justification of the “tukde-tukde” ideology, indicating a resolve to offer a vision that contrasts from the saffron party’s “nationalist” and pro-Hindutva plank.
The 53-page document with “Congress will deliver” claim splashed across the cover, is also replete with strong doses of welfarism, centred around the proposal to transfer Rs 72,000 annually to 20% of the poorest families, with promises on job creation and doing away with permissions for new business, apart from tax and wage laws. The promise of a “Kisan Budget” and right to housing can tap into what the party sees as a reservoir of grievances against BJP.
Pitching its vision as a “wealth with welfare” mantra of national revival and seeking to project the 2019 election as an ideological clash with BJP, Congress promised an “anti-hate” law to check mob lynching and sought to flip the saffron party’s “pseudo-secularism” barb by accusing it of “pseudo-nationalism”.
The manifesto seeks to deepen the “rights-based approach” with a clutch of promises like “right to healthcare” and “right to housing”, a separate budget for farmers, and loan waivers, while promising a separate ministry for employment and a roadmap to boost the economy.
The detailed document, released by Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi, former PM Manmohan Singh, former finance minister P Chidambaram and Rajeev Gowda, is upfront on issues considered politically “no go” areas even though it avoids direct mention of cow vigilantism and is silent on any cattle welfare issues that marked the party’s recent assembly manifestos.
It also promised to bring back the National Integration Council and set up an inter-faith council.
In its manifesto released on Tuesday, Congress took care to underline its determination to combat Pakistan-supported infiltration and reiterated that it was its regimes that defeated Pakistan in 1965 and helped in the birth of Bangladesh in 1971, besides crushing secessionist forces. At the same time, the push to review AFSPA and re-deploy troops in the Kashmir Valley, taboo themes because of the sensitivities of the security establishment, demonstrate a belief in the “soft” touch.
The main opposition has promised to undo several flagship BJP’s initiatives by calling for disbanding of Niti Aayog and restoring Planning Commission and doing away with controversial electoral bonds.
Interestingly, a rather thin “anti-corruption” section merely promises strict enforcement of anti-graft laws while stating that Congress will probe Rafale jet purchase and “several deals” done by the BJP regime over five years. It also says Congress will investigate the flight of scamsters from India.
The declared intent to move away from the centrist perspective on sensitive laws was noticeable given that BJP is prone to painting dilution of such measures as “anti-national”. Congress leaders said the party believes that staying the course on welfarism and focusing on Modi government’s “non-performance” on jobs and economy, and on rural distress, will win it the key demographics critical to the electoral outcome.
When asked, Rahul steered clear of PM Narendra Modi’s charge that Congress raised the “Hindu terror” bogey and is today fleeing from its fallout — as evidenced by Rahul seeking the minority-dominated Wayanad seat — saying the country’s dominant narrative was jobs and rural distress. He accused the BJP mascot of throwing red herrings to the people.
According to Congress strategists, loan waiver and NYAY have the potential to consolidate the poorer sections while “Kisan Budget” as the roadmap to take farmers to “freedom from indebtedness” could win over the rural masses who they believe are disillusioned with BJP, based on the party’s performance in the state polls in Gujarat, Chhattisgarh, MP and Rajasthan.
The focus on jobs is part of the strategy to win over young voters, who the party believes are angry with the Modi regime’s “failure” on this front. At the same time, the declaration that Congress will amend the contentious AFPSA or withdraw the citizenship amendment bill appears to target the north-east region where the seven states account for around 25 Lok Sabha seats and where the twin issues have a strong resonance.
Interestingly, as far as a geographical outreach goes, the Congress chief used the manifesto release to reach out to south India. About his decision to contest from Wayanad, Rahul said his move was designed to express solidarity with the south which he said has faced hostility and alienation under the Modi regime.
It is no coincidence that Rahul’s first election rallies after release of the manifesto will be in Assam and Nagaland on Wednesday. He will then travel to Kerala and file his nomination from Wayanad on Thursday.
Continuing his sharply personal attacks, Rahul accused Modi of “speaking a large number of lies” which made him instruct party managers that the manifesto should not have any promise which could not be implemented.