Bhopal: There is a lot more than the cow, Lord Rama and the Narmada in the Congress’s manifesto for poll-bound Madhya Pradesh. The manifesto was announced in Bhopal on Saturday. Interestingly, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘hard’ versus Congress’s ‘soft-Hindutva’ narrative – built up in the media preceding its release – has made the manifesto look more like a BJP mimeograph.
Shades of Hindutva posturing are discernible in just a few of the 973 points that comprise the 112-page document which the Congress has dubbed ‘Vachan Patr’ (paper of pledges).
The manifesto talks extensively about relief to the farmer, allowances to the unemployed, free health and cheap housing to the poor, enhanced social security pensions to the aged and monetary aid to the marriageable girl. However, a majority of media outlets chose to highlight the religious promises and let the secular and progressive ones be buried under.
Ironically, Congress leaders privately admit they cannot afford to be seen grumbling about the media’s skewed coverage, lest it be misconstrued as the party trailing behind the BJP in appeasing Hindus.
“We have no option but to play along [with] the media-driven narrative because any deviation will give the BJP an opportunity to dub us either anti- or pseudo-Hindu,” a Congress leader who was involved in the manifesto preparation told The Wire.
The Congress’s dilemma is evident in manifesto committee chairman Rajendra Singh’s confession.
“The BJP used to brand us as [a] Muslim Party. It’s a conscious decision to shed that tag thrust on us by our rivals. Earlier, we did not do anything to change the perception,’’ he told the Sunday Express.
Congress sources say the media has highlighted the party’s promises on the cowsheds, Narmada and constructing Lord Rama’s 14-year exile route in the state as though they had never been mentioned before in public.
The fact is that the Congress has repeatedly asserted in the past that it is committed to building cowsheds in all 23,000 village panchayats, developing the Ram Path Gaman along the mythical route that Lord Rama traversed during his 14 years of exile and conserving all rivers flowing in the state.
The ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Hindutva discourse has so badly skewed the political parties’ priorities that even secular issues are sought to be seen through the religious prism. For instance, the Congress’s promises to conserve rivers, improve management of government-owned temples and mutts or promote cattle growth through legislations are essentially part of administrative reforms. But these pledges too have been clubbed with the cow and Lord Rama – donning religious symbolism.
In the past too, the Congress has taken steps to streamline the management of religious places through the religion and religious endowment department, but the party was unaware of the fallouts this would have on its secular credos.
The BJP too has made and implemented promises on religious matters in the past without letting them look like promotions of Hindutva.
In previous elections in the state, the BJP and Congress have vied with each other in making populist announcements. These were so similar that people bothered little to go through the party manifestoes.
In fact, there is hardly any element of surprise in the Congress manifesto except the fact that it is rather too long – spread across a 112-page booklet.
The party had already announced to scrap the Vyapam – the Hindi abbreviation of the MP Professional Examination Board – and refund the fees charged by the infamous institution to job aspirants. Loan waiver schemes for farmers is already a major election plank of the Congress. Its president Rahul Gandhi has promised, more than once in the state, that loan waivers would kick in within ten days of the party coming to power in Madhya Pradesh.
Most Congress promises are an improvement on BJP schemes. For instance, the BJP has been giving Rs 300 per month as social security pension to the elderly destitute; the Congress has promised to raise the amount to Rs 1000. In response to the BJP’s announcement of setting up a separate cow ministry, the Congress has promised a ‘spiritual department’. Moreover, a Rs 50,000 grant to girls for marriage is just a hike in the amount apportioned to the potential beneficiaries in the scheme already being run by the BJP government.
The manifesto, however, departs from BJP’s ideology in its promise to amend controversial provisions of the anti-cow slaughter Act . That being said, it does not elaborate on that promise.
The manifesto committee head, Rajendra Singh, says that some places require bulls solely for agricultural purposes, but the transport of animals has almost come to a standstill because of incidents like when the Bajrang Dal attacked vehicles, pilfered money and left the animals to fend for themselves.
“The cow is a sacred animal for us. We can’t encourage [its] slaughter at any cost but legal transportation must be allowed for agricultural purpose because the livelihood of many depends on it,’’ he told the Indian Express.
The manifesto also includes a rethink on the anti-conversion law. “We are strictly against forced conversions but we also have to stop violence in the name of stopping conversions. We will ensure that no innocent is harassed,’’ the manifesto states. It also promises legal provisions in line with anti-terrorism laws, against communalism and caste disturbances.
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan has, predictably, dismissed the Congress manifesto as a gimmick. He has chosen not to point out the ‘soft-Hindutva’ aspects of the manifesto. Now, all eyes are on the BJP manifesto to see how it counters its main rival on the issues the ruling party is perceived to be more comfortably aligned with.