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New Delhi: With only a little more than a week left before the first phase of the parliamentary polls, the Congress hogged all the attention on Tuesday.
It released its manifesto, and for the first time not only promised some radical changes but also sought to overturn certain laws which have come to be misused in the recent past.
The Congress has been criticising the BJP-led regime on various front for the last five years. The manifesto, which the party called “Hum Nibhayenge (We will deliver)”, reflected those positions as it advanced an alternative vision of governance and development. By releasing its manifesto first, many believe, the party has edged in front of the BJP a little in the perception battle.
What distinguishes the new manifesto is that the party has set out how it will implement many of its promises.
The Rahul Gandhi-led party, as already announced, promised to implement the NYAY scheme that guarantees Rs 72,000 minimum income for at least five crore poor families. The scheme is to be implemented in phases, at a cost not exceeding 2% of GDP.
The Congress also said it will be implemented as a “joint scheme” of the states and the Centre, under the supervision of “economists, social scientists and statisticians”.
If the party comes to power, it promises to fill more than 22 lakh job vacancies in the government by March 2020.
Taking off from its high-decibel campaign on agrarian distress, the party promised a separate “Kisan (farmers) budget” annually. It also said that it would tweak the 2005 Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) to increase the number of guaranteed work days from 100 to 150 and use it to build public assets.
The Congress also said that it wanted to double its spending on education from 3% to 6% of GDP, and from 1.5% to 3% on healthcare. However, this is a promise that the Congress party has been making for the last two decades, but never implemented.
Rahul Gandhi had already spoken about having a leaner Planning Commission – with only about 100 people – in place of the NITI Aayog. The manifesto reiterated the promise and described the NITI Aayog as an organisation “which has proved to be a noisy and incompetent intermeddler”.
It further said that the Goods and Services Tax will be changed and made simpler so that it reflects the spirit of “one nation, one tax”.
Until now, the Congress has appeared to be defensive on security issues, and that has given the BJP a clear edge. However, the manifesto sought to overturn that perception as it dealt in detail with these questions. The document came across as one that was ideologically and principally opposed to the saffron party’s vision as it called for strengthening civil liberties in India.
While it promised to increase defence spending and establish a National Counter-Terrorism Centre for intelligence, it also said it will amend the often-misused Armed Forces Special Powers Act and scrap the archaic sedition law.
The party said that the criminal defamation law will be scrapped so that people use it only as a civil offence. Similarly, the party promised that criminal proceedings will not be allowed against loan-defaulting farmers and that such cases should only be treated as civil liabilities.
The party promised that it will introduce a law against hate crimes. It also said that the controversial Citizenship Bill, which has become a communal issue, will be withdrawn in its current form. Similarly, the party said it will restore the original Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act and the Forest Rights Act that were amended under the current regime. Many families in rural areas face the threat of displacement because of these amendments.
The party also said that the state broadcaster Doordarshan will give free airtime to show campaigns of all parties. In a media space that is seen as increasingly leaning towards the ruling party, the promise is interesting.
From promising 33% reservation for women in parliament and Central government jobs in the very “first session” of the parliament to doing away with the system of electoral bonds introduced by the Modi government (which its thinks unduly favours the ruling party), the Congress manifesto attempted to set a different political agenda from the BJP.
The saffron party’s response
BJP leaders picked a few points of the manifesto and attacked the Congress for trying to compromise the armed forces and national security. The attacks fit well in its campaign that heavily relies on whipping up hyper-nationalist sentiments.
Party president Amit Shah said that the Congress’s promise of amending AFSPA and scrapping the sedition law will “bring a smile to terrorists and separatists while lowering the morale of the armed forces”. He said it will embolden the “Bharat tere tukde honge (India will break into pieces)” gang and replace the slogan of “Bharat Mata ki Jai (Hail Mother India)”.
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said that the Congress manifesto is “full of dangerous ideas” and could lead to the “balkanisation of India”. He appealed to people not to give a single vote to the grand-old party. Union external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj followed suit and said that the manifesto will make “traitors, separatists” happy.
ECI cancels book launch, clarifies later
As the war of words between the two parties continued, a flying squad of the Election Commission of India in Tamil Nadu bizarrely cancelled a launch of a book on the controversial Rafale deal.
The ECI team claimed that its release violated the model code of conduct and seized copies of the book. The former editor-in-chief of The Hindu, N.Ram, who recently broke multiple stories of procedural violations in the Rafale deal, was supposed to be the chief guest for the function.
S. Vijayan’s Naatai Ulukkum Rafale Baera Oozhal (Rafale: The Scam That Rocked The Nation) is supposed to be a comprehensive account of the aircraft deal.
Later in the evening, the ECI reversed its decision and ordered a probe on the matter. Given many political parties have raised concerns about the ECI’s neutrality, the matter blew up immediately.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) moved the ECI and said Prime Minister Narendra Modi is arousing communal passions in many of his speeches and using the national broadcaster Doordarshan for electoral purposes.