Issuing of manifestos before general elections used to be a routine affair, with political parties stating their well-known positions and priorities well before the announcement of the polling dates. But not any more it seems. As the issues get to be sharper and the arguments become more strident, with the electronic media raising the temperature, manifestos have also undergone a transformation. These have become slicker, and sharper.
The Congress Election Manifesto(CEM) was remarkable in many ways and one of its main architects, P Chidambaram, has not been coy about describing how they had gone about putting it together. According to him what is different about this manifesto is that within hours of its being released it had become the talk of the town and villages too. This is because, according to him, it has become the voice of the people and ‘every idea or promise in the CEM was suggested by a citizen of India either in writing or at one of the 174 consultations held across the country. The drafts persons simply wrote the sentences capturing theses ideas in precise language.’
It was no wonder that within days the key manifesto promise had reached every city and town and also village close to the urban areas. He was confident the message has been so powerful that the electronic media and campaigners would carry the message to every nook and corner of the country.
Certainly the manifesto has put the finger on the right spot, the pressing problems, like joblessness and the neglect of the farm sector. And these are what have been riling the ruling party, according to Chidambaram. Their promise of jobs had not been met and unemployment is at a 45-year high. There were obvious solutions but Modi, oblivious of these, had promised to create 2 crore jobs a year that has now come to haunt the BJP.
The CEM had identified many ways to employ the large number of unemployed youth and a simple step like filling all the vacancies in government etc will absorb nearly 24 lakhs.
On the farm front, he said while the BJP was deriding the idea of a farm loan waiver, the CEM has announced that outstanding agricultural loans will be waived. While the Congress justified waiving of farm loans the BJP had gone and waived the loans of insolvent companies, that is the ‘haircut’ of Rs. `84,585 crore so far. Two other steps that had caught the farmers’ imagination were; a separate Kisan budget and no more criminal cases against farmers to enforce an essentially civil liability of recovering an overdue loan. It also promises to bring back the famous Agricultural Extension Services, repeal the Agricultural Produce Markets Act, replace the Essential Commodities Act, and set up a College of Agriculture and a College of Veterinary Sciences in every district.
The manifesto has also addressed issues that are sensitive like the promised the passage of the women’s reservation Bill and reservation of one-third of all posts in the government. For the disadvantaged like the SCs, STs and OBCs, it promised an Equal Opportunities Commission, more affirmative action and reservation in private higher education institutions. Senior citizens have also not been overlooked, and the CEM contains promises to them as well as linguistic and religious minorities, and persons with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community. Thus they have not overlooked any section of society and in that sense is an inclusive document.
On national security, internal security and foreign policy, all contentious issues, the manifesto has challenged the BJP on its failed policies and actions. Why have the number of infiltration attempts, the number of infiltrators and the number of casualties increased in Jammu and Kashmir during their tenure, it asked. And why was AFSPA withdrawn totally from Tripura in 2015, from Meghalaya in 2018 and from three districts of Arunachal Pradesh on April 1, 2019? Why was Section 124A (sedition), a colonial-era provision, necessary when Parliament has made the Defence of India Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act?
And there has been the most innovative of measures ever conceived, the NYAY and the direct resources transfer, schemes that are more evolved an nuanced than the UPA’s earlier MNREGA and other flagship schemes that had addressed rural distress and unemployment and helped check the urban drift.
Such an all-encompassing document could not have been drafted by a few individuals however brilliant they might be. The 9-member crack team that drafted it, was supported by a group of more than 25 people from different callings and motives, but somehow found their paths converge on this mission. Apart from the political regulars, most were young people, eager to transform the political landscape that they felt was sharply polarised.
The whole exercise that involved consultations, drafting and finalisation, took eight months. Requests and suggestion were invited from the public, which received in a much as 31,875 inputs on a dedicated interactive website and 4,038 via WhatsApp, among other portals. No communication device was left untapped.
According to the manifesto panel convenor Rajeev Gowda two groups worked on the manifesto: political office-bearers of the state research departments, and members of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) research department. Talking of the former, he pointed out, ‘The researchers who supported the manifesto preparation are an interesting lot, most of them in their 20s. The political people helped organise the consultations. They got in touch with the Congress units of different states. The researchers focused on note-taking and preparing background notes, compiling the suggestions received during consultations, and then making a final summary of the topics that emerged.’
He continued, ‘They are a highly motivated lot and that’s why it was such a thorough process as we had to do fact-checking and work round-the-clock to meet tight deadlines.’ According to a party functionary, this is the first time that such an extensive consultation had taken place for the manifesto.
Predictably the manifesto came in for harsh criticism from the ruling BJP and possibly this is the first time an opposition manifesto has come in for such attention. Others, much sober and less partisan, have also chipped in to say that though it marked a missed opportunity in this historic Lok Sabha election, though it was not a bad document, and though it was more cogent and thought-through and though Rahul Gandhi too made the most of his modest oratorical skills, it is the right document at the wrong time. Politics is all about timing and context and the Congress is playing normal election games when this is not an election at all but a capture of power through a ritual that has all the external appearances of being a fair democratic election. Institutions and values that are at the heart of the Constitution face an unprecedented attack. And it is in this context that what the Congress does or doesn’t become critical.
The Congress does focus on the real issues and the priorities Rahul has listed are arguably the five big issues that should be focused on: poverty, farm distress, unemployment, health and the widespread sense of fear. The only contentious issue is NYAY , but the idea of direct cash transfer to the poorest is not something to scoff at. Eminent economists like Raghuram Rajan and others like Sam Pitroda had a hand in giving it a shape and it could be a starting point for initiating measures to address extreme forms of poverty. The key demands like one-time loan waiver and an institutional mechanism for remunerative prices have also found a place. The idea of a ‘kisan budget’ may not mean anything immediately, but it has the potential to raise awareness about farmers’ issues.
It is true that any government would find it very hard to fill the 20 lakh-plus vacancies in the central and state governments, but this promise is way ahead of Modi’s election slogan of two crore jobs a year.
However many of the ideas, like the ‘Seva Mitras’ for each panchayat that is not just additional employment, but also has the potential to improve the quality of local governance, the promise of ‘right to healthcare’ that is a move away from private insurance-based model have not been commented upon. There were also many other sensible proposals that did not make the headlines: right to homestead land for every family, livelihood centre for unorganised labour, an additional ASHA worker for large villages, generation of employment through restoration of water bodies, extension of Right To Education up to Class XII, use of the Diversity Index for social justice and appointment of Equal Opportunity Commission.
Predictably it came in for attack from the ruling party and Union finance minister Arun Jaitley termed the manifesto ‘dangerous and unimplementable’, and charged that changing AFSPA and the sedition law were inspired by the ideology of the ‘tukde-tukde’ gang which wants to divide the nation.
And what about the BJP’s own manifesto that came in a bit late. According to one sociologist, there was a ‘humourless ferocity that makes one wonder about the mindset of the communicators. It’s like an exam where the examinee awards himself full marks, regardless of the questions the public is asking. There is an attempt to force the discourse towards what the party is obsessed with rather than answer questions about its performance. The minorities, the elderly, the disabled, shopkeepers, and artisans are dismissed in just one line. The covers of the manifestos also came in for comment. The imaginative cover of the Congress manifesto has a crowd with the CME written in bold letters, while the BJP document has a large picture of the Prime Minister and on the back cover are smaller pictures of stalwarts like Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Vajpayee. That narcissism had not gone unnoticed.
Finally, after all these exercises and publicity, how much do these documents matter? These would, in all probability, be forgotten or would lie in dusty vaults, like so many Planning Commission documents and even the Arvind Subramanian drafted Economic Survey Reports, the second one in a pink over especially, that were so superbly researched and creatively written.