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Congress Party’s Election Manifesto Creates a Buzz

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Congress Party’s Election Manifesto Creates a Buzz

Its focus on job creation, which has been among the top concerns of respondents in a recent survey, has rattled the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Congress Party’s Election Manifesto Creates a Buzz

Election Manifesto of the Indian National Congress, released on April 5, 2024.

Credit: X/Jairam Ramesh

In an unprecedented show of assertiveness, the Indian National Congress, India’s main opposition party, released its election manifesto ‘Nyay Patra’ (justice document) in New Delhi on April 5 followed by a massive launch in the Congress-ruled southern state of Telangana, the next day.

Addressing the public rally, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi raised burning issues like unemployment and inflation, promising paanch nyay or five guarantees to youth, women, farmers, workers and social justice to marginalized sections. Highlighting the Modi government’s attempts at squashing constitutional guarantees, Gandhi declared that the party would fight “to protect the Constitution  and  democracy in the country.”

Incidentally, this is the first time that a political party’s manifesto has explicitly promised to “reverse the damage,” “remove fear and restore freedom.”

The 48-page manifesto garnered tremendous public traction with its promised guarantees of government jobs, caste census, social security for gig workers, and cash transfer of $1,200 for poor women. Within 24 hours of the manifesto release, a rattled Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the main face of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, publicly accused the Congress manifesto of “bearing the Muslim League imprint.” The Muslim League was the party that led the demand for the breakaway of contiguous Muslim-majority areas in British India to create Pakistan.

The BJP, which is yet to release its manifesto a week away from the start of voting, is again raking up its usual trope of Hindu-Muslim divisiveness in an attempt to polarize the voters.

The Congress manifesto does not mention the word “Muslim” even once. So why is Modi, who is seeking a third term as prime minister, making baseless allegations?

The reason can possibly be traced to the findings of a recent Lokniti-CSDS prepoll survey on the major concerns of voters in the upcoming polls, which he revealed unemployment and price rise as the topmost issues of concern to voters. Half the respondents surveyed were worried about issues like unemployment (27 percent) and (price rise 23 percent). Interestingly, these were the very issues highlighted and addressed in the Congress manifesto.

The Congress has quite accurately gauged the dissatisfaction of unemployed youth and promised that, should it come to power it will provide an apprenticeship allowance of $1,200 to those below 25 years. It has also committed to filling the three million vacancies in central government jobs and promised to write off student loans as a one-time measure.

It is not coincidental that a recent International Labour Organisation report found that two out of every three unemployed persons in India is a young graduate.

The Congress has also promised to provide a national minimum wage of 400 Indian rupees, equivalent to $4.80 per day. It might be recalled that it was the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government that had first enacted the path-breaking rights-based Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.

When it ruled Rajasthan state, the Congress enacted a social security law for gig workers. It has committed to a similar initiative for gig-based as well as unorganized sector workers in its roadmap for governance across the country. In keeping with its focus on job creation, the party has declared its intent to reset the economy with a renewed focus on micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). The party which has been lashing out at the BJP for its crony capitalism and patronage of industrialists Gautam Adani and Mukesh Ambani has pledged to crack down on monopolies and check growing income and wealth inequality through policy changes.

During his countrywide long marches, Gandhi had spoken about the need for social justice i.e. conducting a caste census to enumerate the population of socio-economically backward Other Backward Classes (OBCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs or Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). The party has declared it will increase the quota benefits or reservations for these sections.

Significantly, the OBC, SC and ST constitute nearly 70 percent of India’s population and Congress hopes to net the votes of this large section.

As one of the members of the party’s manifesto committee Amitabh Dubey wrote, the document was crafted with a three-pronged focus on job creation, restoring democratic institutions and women empowerment. On women’s empowerment, the  party has committed to making women’s reservations a reality

Although the Modi government did get the Women’s Reservation bill passed during its rule, this was critiqued for being an empty gesture as the provisions for conducting a population census and a delimitation exercise to redraw electoral constituencies, had virtually rendered it impractical till after 2029.

The Congress manifesto also pledges to bring in a law to recognize civil same-sex unions of LGBTQIA couples. Filmmaker and LGBT rights activist Onir hailed the proposal saying, “A party that promises not to treat me as a second-class citizen has my love.”

Political commentators and policymakers have hailed the Congress manifesto, which has created a buzz for the first time in a decade.

As I have argued earlier in The Diplomat, Modi’s anti-corruption crusader image has been dented through the recent disclosures of the opaque poll funding instrument, electoral bonds. The opposition has been quick to cash in on this and the Congress manifesto declares its intent to probe these “dubious deals” of the Modi government, including the Rafale aircraft deal, Pegasus spyware and the demonetization of currency in 2016. Incidentally, 55 percent of those surveyed in the Lokniti-CSDS pre-poll survey stated that corruption had increased in the past five years of Modi’s rule.

The Modi government’s misuse of central agencies (Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation) to harass and intimidate opposition leaders has been reflected in the party’s manifesto. The Congress has promised to regulate the functioning of these agencies by Parliament to put an end to arbitrary arrests, seizures, and prolonged custody. The party has proposed to enact a law on bail so that “bail is the rule and jail is the exception.”

Among the other notable poll promises is the restoration of full statehood to Jammu and Kashmir as well as the assuagement of concerns raised in tribal areas of Ladakh. However, the manifesto is silent on Article 370.

The Congress manifesto deals with farm distress and the long-drawn farmer agitation against the Modi government in a separate section. It has promised to make Minimum Support Price a legal right.

The Congress has entered the poll fray this time around as a member of the INDIA coalition. Therefore, concerns of alliance partners like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi have been acknowledged in the manifesto. The Congress has vowed to ensure that the Lieutenant-Governor of Delhi will specifically act on the aid and advice of the elected government of Delhi and not on the central government’s directions. The Modi government has been accused of demolishing the federal structure and centralizing governance.

India after a decade under Modi rule has changed unrecognizably. So intrusive is the Modi government in the lives and choices of people that a political party (Congress) has specifically stated in its political manifesto in 2024 that it “promises not to interfere in personal choices of food and dress to love and marry…”

Whether a two-term anti-incumbency will tarnish Modi’s winning streak remains to be seen. But it is evident that large sections of the public are disillusioned with Modi’s promise of “acche din” (golden days).

While the Congress manifesto roadmap is undoubtedly a game-changer, what will make a difference on polling day, is whether the Congress’ poll promises have resonated with the masses.