How Practical is the Congress’ “Wealth and Welfare” Manifesto in the Age of Hypernationalism?


How Practical is the Congress’ “Wealth and Welfare” Manifesto in the Age of Hypernationalism?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Romanian Poet Tristan Tzara in his manifesto for Dada, an art movement from 1920s Europe, demanded literature to step up, so it could be widely read. “Every page should explode, either because of its profound gravity, or its vortex, vertigo, newness, eternity, or because of its staggering absurdity, the enthusiasm of its principles,” he proposed. Of the last few aspects mentioned in Tzara’s words plenty made an appearance, at least in spirit in the Congress manifesto released today.

If you are a sucker for the poetic possibilities of Indian politics and are a liberal at heart, chances are you gushed over the document, impressed by the way it eloquently piloted issues that have now become long-running battles. It is, in essence, the mounting of a horse already running a demanding race.

Broadly, the Congress claims to marry “wealth and welfare” with handout schemes like NYAY that seek to eliminate poverty, complementing the implementation of a new GST for ease of business. The manifesto also proposes a check on the powerful and wealthy by doing away with dubious electoral bonds and instituting more transparency in media ownership. For farmers, the party has promised a separate Kisan budget, and it also promises to implement the Right to Healthcare Act and guarantee every citizen free diagnostics, out-patient care, free medicines and hospitalisation. And then there is the massive issue of unemployment: “All of the 4 lakh vacancies as on 1 April 2019 in the Central Government, Central Public Sector Enterprises, Judiciary and Parliament will be filled before the end of March 2020.”

There is much to like about the Congress manifesto, not in the least bit its progressiveness.

There is much to like about the Congress manifesto, not in the least bit its progressiveness. In fact, in places, it surpasses polity to ascend to a level of earnestness that must be alien to the average Indian voters. From upholding net neutrality and LGBTIQA rights, the manifesto even intends to address climate change, a global crisis so undesirably “elitist” to heat-stricken India, no party has even bothered to throw it a bone. It is a reflection not of the crisis as much as it is of the political discourse in India; which is why the party’s zeal is a cause for suspicion.

How good, after all, is too good to be true? The Congress’ manifesto has been written with liberals in mind, perhaps by them. Its near universal endorsement isn’t something to scoff at, but it shouldn’t necessarily be celebrated either, because for the party to work on its promises, the promises first need to work for the party in winning this election. And that is tough ask, for any document, however lyrical or futurist.  

The Congress will of course be ridiculed with rhetoric for not having acted on a number of things while it was in power. The colonial-era sedition act, for example, has been in place for the entire duration of independent India and has been misused on several occasions by previous Congress regimes – the Emergency is a big example, the arrest of Dr Binayak Sen in 2007 is another. Digital laws were deprived under the Manmohan Singh government just as much as their provisions were misused by the NDA. And corruption, as we know, isn’t just one party’s to claim as legacy.

There is more eagerness in the language of the Congress manifesto than there seems to be diligence.

There is more eagerness in the language of the Congress manifesto than there seems to be diligence. On the section which talks about the economy, it says, “We must get government out of gratuitous interventions in the market.” This is the kind of language one would use to answer “will you” questions in a job interview. It might be cynical to criticise as sweepingly reformist, perhaps even revolutionary, a set of promises, but this cynicism is borne out of a level of distrust that only Indian politicians can evoke.

Rather than ask whether the Congress will work on its promises from the manifesto, one needs to ask whether the manifesto will work for the Congress. The most highlighted issues – sedition, freedom of speech, censorship, net neutrality – for example, are problems that concern a very small chunk of the electorate.

Though the manifesto has encouraging announcements for sectors like education and agriculture (a separate budget for it all together), a significant population of India, its social and religious minorities suffer from the debilitating political narrative of hate. In its manifesto the Congress has promised to put an end to mob violence and lynchings, and prevent atrocities and hate crimes against the SC, ST, women and minorities. “Congress will hold accountable the police and district administration for proven negligence in the case of riots, mob violence, and hate crimes.”  

But look at the environment we find ourselves in. We’re at a state where the openly communal statements of our netas find legitimacy, the Model Code of Conduct be damned. Senior Karnataka BJP leader KS Eshwarapppa said that his party will not field Muslim candidates in the state “because [Muslims] don’t believe in us. Believe us and we’ll give you tickets and other things.” At Yogi Aditynath’s rally in Greater Noida’s Bisada village, four men accused in the Dadri lynching were seen cheering from the front row.  

Checking hate crime and policing it is one thing, but erasing it from the heart of Indians bent on channelling it is another challenge altogether. This anger, this hate toward certain groups, is likely to follow if the voting public continues to chase the Hindu Rashtra dream. The fact, as hard as it maybe to accept is that most of India has met the BJP’s divisive politics mid-way. To appeal to their good nature is noble, but to expect returns from it is perhaps, as sad as it may sound, futile.  

The manifesto even goes as far as to suggest reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. It promises to amend AFSPA “to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture”. The draconian act needs revision, all right, but in an election where the BJP has hedged its bets on national security and the mythologising of terror along the border, a restrictive step that in any way appears to belittle the armed forces will only further arm the BJP’s rhetoric about Congress being either a party of weaklings or supporters of Pakistan altogether. It was untimely a tad too wishful, even if dignified, to address AFSPA at this moment.

The wide-ranging, poetic liberalism of this manifesto will appeal to India’s elite armchair socialists. But we must treat its intentions with as much scepticism as we must weigh its political dividend.