Rahul Gandhi proves a serious contender with A+ manifesto

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Sudheendra Kulkarni |

A true leader is one who puts himself to tougher tests than others. Furthermore, he asks people to subject him and his utterances to closer scrutiny than they normally do with ordinary crowd-pleasers. The manifesto of the Congress party for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections begins with two audacious affirmations. On its cover is the declaration: “Congress Will Deliver”.

As you open the Contents page, there is a startling statement by Rahul Gandhi, the party’s young president – “I’ve never broken a promise that I’ve made.” Taken together, what do these two affirmations convey to the people of India? Just this: “Hold me to account if my party fails to deliver what it has promised in this manifesto.” Run-of-the-mill politicians do not throw such challenges.

The manifesto of the Congress party for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections begins with two audacious affirmations. On its cover is the declaration: “Congress Will Deliver”.

It is, of course, true that given the current uncertain election atmosphere, the Congress president may not have to walk the talk. The buzz in the TV studios these days is that Narendra Modi will get a second term, albeit with a significantly reduced number of seats for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). But almost all objective observers of the election scene unanimously also aver that there is no Modi Wave of the kind that propelled the BJP to a historic win – a clear majority on its own – in 2014.

Surprises cannot be ruled out in a situation like this. After all, few had predicted in 2004 that Sonia Gandhi, a relative novice in Indian politics and carrying the burden of being “foreign-born”, would lead the Congress to victory against the BJP then led by a popular and seasoned leader like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Even though Modi himself has been claiming that the people of India have already made up their mind to re-elect him, there is no certainty that he will be proved right – or wrong.

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What is, however, becoming clearer by the day, is that Rahul, helped mainly by his sister Priyanka, has brought his moribund party on a revival path. And by releasing a weighty manifesto on Tuesday, he has become a strong challenger. Whatever the outcome of the elections, there is little doubt that it is the best, also the most detailed, manifesto produced by any political party in the history of Indian elections. Dr Rajeev Gowda, who heads the party’s research department, deserves kudos for leading a massive participative effort that stretched over a year.

The result shows in both depth and breadth. The manifesto stands out for yet another important reason. At a time when the BJP and its leaders – with Modi himself taking the lead – are busy further polluting the election atmosphere with the poison of communalism and hyper-nationalism, the Congress manifesto has focused on all those issues that truly concern the people of India with an inclusive and progressive vision. While presenting the manifesto the nation, Rahul said that he had given two directions to the committee that had been mandated to prepare it.

The buzz in the TV studios these days is that Narendra Modi will get a second term, albeit with a significantly reduced number of seats for the BJP.

One, he wanted it to reflect the wishes of the people around the country. Two, he wanted it to be implementable. He did not want it to include any promise beyond the scope of fulfilment. These two instructions made the committee crowdsource ideas and suggestions both through offline and online interactions with common people and experts. As Rahul rightly pointed out, because the method adopted to prepare the manifesto was democratic and consultative, its salient points have already begun to find widespread resonance on the ground.

For example, when Rahul had an interaction with tech entrepreneurs in Bangalore a fortnight ago, his promise to abolish the Angel Tax drew ringing applause. Similar was the response when he promised, during an earlier interaction with girl students at Stella Maris College, Chennai, to double the allocation to education to 6 percent of the GDP. And even though many pundits on panel discussions in TV studios have been scoffing at the promise of NYAY (the Minimum Income Support Scheme), it has already become the most talked about election issue in villages and urban slums all over India.

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The slogan “Garibi par war, bahattar hazaar” (a war on poverty with direct transfer of Rs. 72,000 to the bank accounts of 5 crore poorest families, accounting for 20 percent of all Indian families) scores on both brevity and boldness. There is unanimous recognition today that employment generation is the most serious challenge facing the Indian economy. Ours has become one of the fastest growing large economies in the world.

India is set to overtake the United Kingdom as the fifth-largest economy in the world in 2019. Our GDP will grow from 3 trillion USD to over 5 trillion USD within a decade. But if India continues to witness not just “growth without job creation”, but “growth with significant destruction of existing jobs”, the resultant social turmoil could have undesirable outcomes. The Congress manifesto has addressed this problem comprehensively. It has pledged to ensure both support and “freedom from Inspector Raj” to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) which “account for 90 per cent of all employment outside agriculture”.

The Congress manifesto has focused on all those issues that truly concern the people of India with an inclusive and progressive vision.

This is bound to rejuvenate a critical sector of the Indian economy. Rahul’s promise of doing away with all government permissions to new MSME units for three years “until they stabilise” is truly pathbreaking. The section on “Agriculture, Farmers and Farm Labour” has a bunch of big ideas which, if implemented well, can considerably reduce rural distress. Karz mukti (loan waiver) and the promise not to allow “criminal proceedings against a farmer who is unable to pay his/her debt” will no doubt be welcomed by the farming community.

The promise to introduce “a separate Kisan Budget” will also win plaudits. But the crisis in agriculture is far too deep to be overcome by such short-term measures. India needs a system-wide reorientation of its priorities towards agriculture and the rural economy. One of the fresh ideas in the manifesto is to link MGNREGA 3.0 (under which guaranteed days of employment will be raised from 100 to 150) “to address issues of water security, soil quality and similar issues that aggravate farmers’ distress”.

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In the urban context, the manifesto has proposed a very important new reform – directly elected city mayors with a fixed term of five years. This is bound to promote urban good governance by bringing in greater empowerment, efficiency, accountability and opportunities for the adoption of best practices from within India and abroad. Today, mayors of Indian cities are so powerless and faceless that they hardly can achieve the results expected under the 74th Amendment to the Constitution.

Even though India is urbanising rapidly, very few of our mayors rise in their political careers to important positions at the national level. Contrast this with how empowered and capable mayors abroad achieve stellar results during their tenure in civic service, and later become powerful national leaders. China’s former President Jiang Zemin (he was Mayor of Shanghai), France’s former President Jacques Chirac (he was Mayor of Paris) and South Korea’s former President Lee Myung-bak (who was Mayor of Seoul) are just a few examples.

This is bound to rejuvenate a critical sector of the Indian economy. Rahul’s promise of doing away with all government permissions to new MSME units for three years “until they stabilise” is truly pathbreaking.

The Congress leadership has shown courage in promising review of the “Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Disturbed Areas Act” in Jammu and Kashmir. It has also promised “to review the deployment of armed forces” in the state. The party deserves to be congratulated for the following boldest articulation: “Building a Union of States that is India is a project of inclusiveness. Jammu & Kashmir and its problems deserve a large-hearted approach that will eschew muscular militarism and legalistic formulations and look for innovative federal solution.

Congress promises to find such a solution through patient dialogue and talks with all stakeholders in the state…and without preconditions.” Undoubtedly, the BJP will train its guns at the Congress on the ways it seeks to normalise the situation in J&K. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, for example, has accused that the manifesto is a prescription for India’s “Balkanization”. But then the Modi government has a lot to answer for to the people of Kashmir as also the people of India as a whole on why it has failed to achieve peace and normalcy in the Valley in the past five years.

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The manifesto is weak in two important sections – science and technology and arts and culture. The party should have presented a more ambitious and properly explained vision of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, which has the potential to transform every area of the economy and society – and in which China is making resolute strides to overtake USA. The section on “Art, Culture and Heritage” covers a very small part of what India needs to do in order to preserve, conserve and further enrich its immeasurable intangible wealth.

All in all, the Congress has taken a big leap forward to challenge Modi’s BJP by presenting a manifesto that combines intellectual heft and heightened political will. Normally, and unfortunately, manifestos of political parties are not taken seriously either by the electorate or, most of the time, by the parties themselves. But make no mistake: the one unveiled by Rahul Gandhi is different. And daring.

Precisely for this reason, this manifesto deserves to be studied and debated seriously. The same thing should happen when the BJP releases its manifestos in the coming days. After all, informed debate at the time of elections is the hallmark of a mature democracy.

Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. This article was published in NDTV.COM and has been republished with author’s permission. The views expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space. 

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