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A challenging text: on the Congress manifesto

April 7, 2019

By Shiv Visvanathan

Manifestos are generally acts of defiance and hope, which combine wishful thinking with critique. Manifestos have created world views and lived on as political and literary classics. The Congress manifesto is not quite literary or memorable but it contains within it nuggets which can shape the democratic process. In fact, there is a touch of nostalgia and dream, as the manifesto echoes Tagore’s vision of a land where the mind is without fear.

The Congress document begins with a set of dualisms marking alternative choices between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and itself. The polarities are stark. The battle is between freedom and fear, harmony and hatred, exclusion and inclusion. There is a poetry to these pages before one moves to the prose of policy choices. The BJP senses the power of this text and responds by calling the Opposition the Tukde-Tukde gang. For the BJP the election is a battle is between unity and disorder. One suddenly realises that it has dropped its economic development plank and become ‘securitarian’, hinting that a vote for the Congress is a regression to instability.

There is a hidden politics here which the manifesto exploits. The BJP is ideologically a votary of the nation state, of law and order, of patriotism as a world view. Sensing the weakness of this strategy, the Congress offers a broad weave of rights-based strategies, which provides a wide spectrum of solutions including employment guarantees, the revival of agriculture and a critique of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. What we have in front of us are two models of governance, modelling as two variants of democracy. The differences are stark but the Congress has at least acquired the humility to tacitly critique its errors. One wishes it had paid more attention to corruption. But its attempt to create a transformative policy of rights is genuinely welcome.

There is also a difference in world views. The BJP has a commitment to a liberal economic order serving corporate interests. The Congress manifesto makes a similar claim but one senses its claims to welfarism reflect more its socialist unconscious. But the choice, however, becomes starker. A law and order party is ready to battle a rights-oriented party which is dreaming a return to welfarism.

One must confess manifestos have been ignored in recent times, but by reworking the Indian dream, the Congress manifesto has created a challenging text that opens up the space of politics while making electoralism a real politics of choice — a choice not as a knee-jerk response between two fixed options, but as a dream of alternative possibilities which takes citizenship and agency seriously. There are shades of rethinking India especially around agriculture and institution-building. The pity is that the focus is uneven. A critique of the BJP idea of institutions would have added to the power of the document.

Manifestos exude a sense of the magical which derives from the power of keywords. If there is a keyword that dominates the Congress document, it is employment. The spectre of unemployment becomes a counter to the spectre of national insecurity. To counter the Modi model, the Congress offers a millennialism of jobs. The promise of a minimum guaranteed income has stolen the thunder from guarantees of national security. The Congress has promised to transfer ?72,000 per year to the poorest families. This, accompanied by job creation, shifts the agenda from poverty alleviation to job creation, shifting agency back to the poor. The range of employment offered includes “make for the world”, which sounds like a direct spoof of the BJP’s much-touted “Make in India”. By making job creation the major focus, the manifesto emphasises one of the key failures of the BJP-led government at the Centre, its inability to create jobs or to confront an economy in which the number of jobs is declining.

But what is sociologically fascinating is that it links employment to the future of the cities. The city now becomes a vision of startups for employment, and one wishes the Congress had elaborated this idea. The other part of employment which is different from the BJP’s vision is the Congress’s attempt to systematically link ecology and employment to regeneration of wastelands and recovery of water bodies.

Also central to the manifesto’s economic imagination is the attempt to revive agriculture, especially through the Karz Mukti programme, which also decriminalises debt. Yet while agriculture is talked about in terms of commissions and prices, one wishes the Congress had emphasised agriculture as trusteeship of diversity and ways of life. Agriculture has to contain a wider vision of society if it has to be economically effective. A mention of its own past reflection of agriculture would have made its intentions more authentic. Its critique of the Fasal Bima Yojana is important because often reform enriches corporates at the expense of farmers. One senses the Congress has acquired a sense of the ironies of agriculture policy over the last few decades.

If the revival of agriculture is one welcome strand of the Congress manifesto, its rights-based model of institution-building is another powerful counter to the Modi model of governance.

Its attempt to challenge the BJP appropriation of its achievement is also a welcome sign of a return to confidence. One must mention here its recognition of the importance of the informal economy and civil society as critical parts of processes that the BJP was dismissive about. Maybe the years in opposition have made the party a better listener than it was in the 1970s when the Emergency emasculated the integrity of our fundamental institutions.

The party’s critique of a governance model where “the regulators have become controllers” shows that it has become both self-reflective and self-critical. There is a touch of schizophrenia here when it warns that government should not unnecessarily interfere in the market, alongside its cornucopia of welfarism measures. What is most welcome, however, is the attention it pays to marginal communities such as fishermen. It is a realisation that in India, margins are demographically large. A similar set of paragraphs on de-notified tribes promises an immediate repeal of the Habitual Offenders Act.

The power of the second half of the manifesto stems from its link between governance and institution building. The emphasis on transparency and accountability is welcome. The Congress promises not only that it won’t tamper with the Reserve Bank of India but also that it will let the media self-regulate itself. Its promise to strengthen the Right to Information and remove provisions which have diluted it is necessary. Yet there is an overall sensitivity when it observes that “we are an over legislated and over regulated country”. Its attempt to decriminalise laws dealing with civil violations is a part of this perspective.

The Congress promises to review AFSPA and relook at the National Register of Citizens in Assam. One senses a party rethinking itself at the institutional level. One wishes it had been more thoughtful in details about climate change but one smells the beginning of a different concern for the Anthropocene.

One can dismiss the document as a wish list, as a set of promises — or one can read between the lines and see a party groping to a freshness of thought, indicating it is no longer obsessed with its past but inventing itself for a future. Reading it and placing it next to the arrogance of the BJP’s sense of achievement, one realises that hubris is not one of the party’s problems. A tentative manifesto is often more attractive than boring repetitions of a party which sees itself as inevitable.

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