As the two national parties lay out their agenda, the Congress released its manifesto detailing their plans for the country if they were to come to power. In a blog post, Congress president Rahul Gandhi writes on the manifesto being worked on with the help of “121 public consultations and 53 expert consultations with entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers, teachers, economists and many others”, ending it with “Congress promises, Congress delivers.” Mihir Sharma in a column for Bloomberg writes on the manifesto and questions if this represents real reform with the Modi government perhaps not performing to expectations that it set for itself in 2014 –
“Much in the manifesto was solidly reformist…it felt like we were back in the 2000s. Much in the manifesto was solidly reformist; it included several longstanding prescriptions from economists and public policy experts.”
Poverty & Unemployment
Prior to its release, the party unveiled an ambitious minimum income guarantee plan which was lauded by some and raised many questions regarding its implementation and cost. The Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme, as it’s called, forms the crux of the economic message that the Congress is putting out there. It aims to tackle poverty and unemployment with a promise of providing Rs.72,000 annually to the poorest families. The Hindu editorial speaks to this policy in the context of the manifesto as a whole –
“Its manifesto has scant details about how its ambitious schemes will be funded. The Congress will do well to address follow-up questions on its schemes and their implementation. The manifesto has triggered a national debate on several issues that are close to people’s lives, and that is a welcome development.”
The manifesto states that the party will fill 4 lakh government jobs by March 2020 and urges state governments to fill the lakhs of government vacancies, which is part of an overall plan to create 34 lakh jobs.
Farmers & Agricultural sector
Its no doubt that farmers are struggling and the agricultural sector could certainly be healthier. Their frustrations and dismay were shown in public at national and state-wide protests and the unfortunate number of farmers taking their own lives owing to crippling debt.
The Congress’ plan involves three key points - remunerative prices, lower input costs, and access to institutional credit. This will likely be laid out in a Kisan Budget that the party said it would announce every year. With regards to farmers who don’t repay their loans, Rahul Gandhi said, “Under our government, farmers who cannot pay back loans, it will no more be a criminal offence.” With regards to a Kisan budget, Business Line reports on some concerns that arise here, with one economist stating, “Kisan Budget, as promised, may not add anything more than what is highlighted in the manifesto.”
The Congress and the BJP have resorted to loan waivers as a way of easing the crippling debt, which has come under criticism as not being the best way to deal with the issue. To better deal with the problems of the agricultural sector as a whole, the manifesto promises the establishment of a permanent National Commission on Agricultural Development and Planning consisting of farmers, agricultural economists and scientists. This commission will aim to advise and help the government in making the agricultural sector more viable and remunerative.
The Indian economy has seen its ups and downs over the past few years. Rising fuel prices, a historically weak rupee for a few months and inflation worries coupled with the dual shocks to the economy – Demonetisation and GST; the economy overall didn’t show signs of extreme weakness but did slow down a notch.
For the Congress, the dual economic policies of GST and Demonetisation that will come to define the BJP’s tenure, are key points of criticism. In their manifesto, the party aims to achieve a target of 3% GDP by 2020- ’21. Puja Mehra, in a column for the Deccan Herald, writes that the economic policy as a whole from the manifesto is the Congress ‘embracing centrism’ –
'“The document suggests that the party wishes to signal its return to the centrist economic ideology, away from the Left philosophy, which had defined most economic policies of the two UPA governments. The manifesto’s key proposals are from centrists: Reform of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and freedom from ‘Inspector Raj’ for micro and small enterprises for three years.”
The economic plan by the Congress has come under fire from the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) for not giving them priority except in the category of a simplified GST. Addressing a press conference, CAIT Secretary General Praveen Khandelwal said problems have been overlooked by the Congress in its manifesto citing the promise of no permission being required for the first 3 years of conducting a business. He called this move illogical as there are Acts passed by parliament that traders have to adhere to.
With regards to issues affecting women, the Congress manifesto focuses on jobs and safety with a core principle of dignity. A key component of this is a promise to amend the Service Rules to reserve for women 33 % of appointments to posts in the Central Government including state police forces reserving 33% of all vacancies for women. Passing the Constitution (Amendment) Bill to provide for reservation of 33% of seats in the Lok Sabha and State Legislative Assemblies for women is another promise mentioned.
With regards to safety, there is a promise to review of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013 and extend the Act to all workplaces. Priyanka Chaturvedi, spokesperson of the Congress, in a February interview provided a preview of what the party will focus on when it comes to women’s issues, saying in part, “We have to move to prevention. The more women coming out in public spaces that’s important. We need to normalise women in spaces” adding “It worries us that women are dropping out of the workforce. Why are women the worst affected in job reports?”
The manifesto rests on certain pillars as the Congress puts it - Kaam, Daam, Shaan, Sushashan, Swabhimaan, Samman (work, pride, self-respect, and presence in society). The manifesto was basically dismissed by the BJP as Prime Minister Modi particularly focused on national identity saying, “Congress wants to encourage those who burn the tricolour, those who do not chant Jai Hind like you and me…” referring to the sedition law that has garnered controversy. Sudeep Chakravarti, in a column for Livemint, criticises the BJP’s response –
“Congress’ suggestion to ‘omit’ the sedition law isn’t an act of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because good "cred" isn’t earned by traumatizing those we call our own, but by acknowledging they are citizens first, with Constitutional rights.”
The party has its work cut out in proving to the electorate that the policies outlined in the manifesto are doable and provide a roadmap for them. As the Indian Express editorial points out, the manifesto a step towards the party staking its place in a BJP dominated political field –
“It signals that the party is willing to stake out its own positions in ways that do not just counter its political opponent…Rahul Gandhi’s party is sending a signal that it may be ready to begin shedding the silence, ambiguity and timidity accumulated over years and risk being held accountable for what it says.”
More columns by Varun Sukumar