Decoding Congress manifesto: Radical, populist, but curiously silent on CAA, OPS

Top leaders of the Congress, including party chief Mallikarjun Kharge, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, releasing the party manifesto in New Delhi on April 5. Photo: INC/Twitter

Decoding Congress manifesto: Radical, populist, but curiously silent on CAA, OPS

On the raging debate over the alleged manipulation of EVMs, the Congress manifesto has, this time around, taken a more nuanced stand instead of its push of five years ago when it had advocated for a return to the paper ballot system.

The Congress party released its manifesto for the 2024 Lok Sabha polls on Friday (April 5), with justice — social, economic and political — as its overarching theme and a pledge to reboot the Indian economy by giving “work, wealth and welfare” renewed impetus.

Titled ‘Nyay Patra’ (document for justice), the manifesto predictably has as its driving force the 25 guarantees that Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge and former party chief Rahul Gandhi had declared for the electorate during the course of the latter’s Manipur to Maharashtra Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra. The 25 guarantees, divided equally under five “pillars of justice”, list the Congress’s promises of justice for women (Naari), youth (Yuva), farmers (Kisaan), the labour force (Shramik) and for equitable participation of every section of India’s population (Hissedari).

As previously reported, the 25 Nyay Guarantees include the Congress’s promises of conducting a socio-economic caste census, filling up 30 lakh vacancies in government jobs, removing the 50 percent cap on reservations, enacting a Right to Apprenticeship law with a guaranteed stipend to beneficiaries of Rs 1 lakh per annum, financial aid of Rs One lakh per annum to one woman per poor household, enacting legislations for Minimum Support Price (MSP), Right to Health and urban employment guarantee law and setting up a Rs 5000 crore corpus for start-ups, among others.

Paanch Nyay, the focal point

The Paanch Nyay promises form the vanguard of the Congress’s poll pitch. The Congress high command and the party’s other campaigners are expected to emphasise these the most while seeking a mandate against the BJP. The Congress is hopeful that these guarantees would strike a chord with an electorate besieged by rising unemployment and spiralling inflation.

The manifesto also includes a litany of other commitments – some radical, some populist and others rooted in the Congress’s worldview of constitutional imperatives – that the party says it will fulfil if the electorate votes it to power by denying Prime Minister Narendra Modi a third consecutive term in office. There are deafening silences too, like on the Centre’s brazenly Citizenship Amendment Act or on a hitherto poll-time Congress favourite – the promise of reverting from the New Pension Scheme (NPS) framework to the Old Pension Scheme (OPS).

Goes silent on CAA

The manifesto does not spell out whether the Congress would scrap or suitably amend the Modi government’s controversial CAA – an omission that the Congress may find difficult to explain, particularly in states such as Bengal, Assam and Kerala, where other Opposition outfits such as the Trinamool Congress and the Left parties have been vociferously critical of the polarising law. Congress sources say the omission was deliberate for two reasons; first, because the CAA is already under challenge before the Supreme Court and so the manifesto drafting panel felt that “any poll assurance on a sub judice matter would be improper” and, second, to “not give an opportunity to the BJP to stoke further communal polarisation on the issue”.

On the exclusion of any reference to the OPS, former finance minister P Chidambaram, who headed the Congress’s manifesto drafting committee, told reporters that this was because the Centre had already set up a committee to “review the NPS” and examine if features of the OPS could be brought into the new scheme too. Chidambaram clarified that the Congress will spell out its stand afresh on the OPS-NPS debate once the Centre’s review is complete.

Balanced stand against EVMs

Similarly, on the perennially raging debate over alleged manipulation of EVMs, the Congress manifesto has, this time round, taken a more nuanced stand instead of its push of five years ago when it had advocated for a return to the paper ballot system. The 2024 manifesto states that the Congress will “amend election laws to combine the efficiency of the EVM and the transparency of the ballot paper”. To this end, the manifesto says that while the Congress backs voting through the EVM, it wants the voter to “be able to hold and deposit the machine-generated voting slip into the voter-verifiable paper audit trail (VVPAT) unit” so that 100 percent of the vote tally is matched against VVPAT slips.

The Lok Sabha campaign that will gather momentum over the next two months of a predictably raucous seven-phase poll schedule would bear out if the Congress, by its silence or shifting stance on such critical issues, has erred or made prudent electoral choice. For now though, the party hopes the contents of and not the exclusions from the manifesto would emerge as talking points.

The manifesto goes much beyond the party’s already publicised 25 Nyay Guarantees. As first reported by The Federal on March 20, the Nyay Patra addressed a slew of broader concerns that are caste, gender and class neutral such as the BJP’s alleged attempts to undermine the Constitution, systemic problems of Executive overreach or interference into the realms of the judiciary and other constitutional institutions or persisting problems linked with federalism. For each of these, and more, the Congress manifesto offers its own solutions.

An entire section of federalism lists promises that range from granting special category status to Andhra Pradesh and full statehood to Pondicherry, restoring the statehood of Jammu & Kashmir, amending the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution to include tribal areas of the Union Territory of Ladakh and curtailing administrative overreach by the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. It also promises to “end the duplicitous cess Raj of the BJP/NDA government” by enacting a new law to “limit Union cess and surcharges to five percent of gross tax revenue”

Direct effect on voters

Federalism aside, the manifesto drafting committee clearly channelled most of its focus on issues that have the potential to impact an overarching chunk of the electorate directly. The string of populist promises that the party has made in its manifesto includes a “one-time” write-off of all education loans – “amount due including unpaid interest as on March 15, 2024 – for which impacted banks will be compensated by the government, a “one-time relief to applicants who were unable to write the qualifying public examinations during April 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 due to the (COVID) pandemic” and bringing amendments to the UPA-era Right to Education Act to “make education from Class I to Class XII in public school compulsory and free”.

The manifesto also promises mobile phones to “all students of classes IX to XII” along with “free and unlimited internet on college and school campuses”, restoration of fully funded “pre-matric and higher education scholarships for disadvantaged groups” and the Maulana Azad Scholarships for studies abroad, and introduction of a Rs 10000 per month “sports scholarship” for talented sports persons aged below 21.

On sports bodies, selection

With protests by Sakshi Malik and other women wrestlers over being allegedly sexually harassed by former WFI chief and BJP leader Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh still fresh in public memory, the Congress manifesto also states that the party, if voted to power, will “enact separate legislation for registration of sports federations” to ensure full compliance with the Olympic Charter and to “provide recourse for members and sportspersons against discrimination, bias, sexual harassment, abuse, wrongful termination, etc”.

The manifesto also reiterates the Congress’s assurance to scrap the contentious Agnipath Scheme, excluding agricultural inputs from the GST regime while also reviewing and restructuring the current GST apparatus with a “single, moderate rate (with few exceptions)”. The poll document also makes a strident case for decriminalising defamation – the law that led to the brief disqualification of Rahul Gandhi from Lok Sabha following his conviction in the Modi surname case, reviewing all laws that “interfere with right to privacy” or “restrict right to freedom of speech and expression” and also for repealing or suitably amending a host of other laws.

An unequivocal case has also been made out in the manifesto for amending the 10th Schedule of the Constitution (the anti-defection law); the rampant abuse and exploitation of which during the past 10 years has led to the toppling of various Congress governments by the BJP while facilitating swift defections from Opposition outfits to the saffron party. The manifesto states that the Congress would amend the 10th Schedule to defection an “automatic” ground for disqualification of the MP or MLA in question.

Likewise, the party has also reiterated its reservations against the Naari Shakti Vandan Adhiniyam (Women Reservation Act) that was enacted by Parliament last year. Stating that the law promising 33 percent reservation for women in State Assemblies and the Lok Sabha contains “sinister provisions” that will allow reservation to come into operation “only beyond 2029”, the Congress manifesto says the party will “delete the sinister provisions” and bring the amended Act into effect “immediately”. “The one-third reservation for women will be applied to State Assemblies that will be elected in the next round of Assembly elections in 2025”, the manifesto says, adding that the reservation in the Lok Sabha will be made operation in the 2029 polls.

Silent on quota-within-quota

Curiously though, the manifesto is silent on whether the party will also carve out a quota-within-quota for SC, ST and OBC women – something that the Congress had made a strident case for when the Adhiniyam was debated and passed by Parliament.

As reported by The Federal earlier, the manifesto also lists some radical judicial reforms, including the setting up of a National Judicial Commission “in consultation with the Supreme Court and the Chief Justices of High Courts” for the selection and appointment of judges of the higher judiciary. The NJC, if realised, would replace the existing and deeply controversial collegium system of appointing High Court and Supreme Court judges. Ostensibly on the premise that the NJC can become a reality, the manifesto further suggests increasing the representation of women, SC, ST, OBC and religious minorities in the higher judiciary.

The manifesto committee has also revived the party’s 2019 poll promise of creating two divisions in the Supreme Court to establish a separate “Constitutional Court” and a “Court of Appeal”. The Constitutional Court, the manifesto states, will consist of seven seniormost judges and will decide “cases involving interpretation of the Constitution and other cases of legal significance and national importance”. The Court of Appeal will “be the final court of appeal that will, sitting in Benches of three judges each, hear appeals from the High Court and National Tribunals”.

The Congress has also promised setting up a number of new commissions to look into diverse fields. As such, the manifesto promises the restoration of the Planning Commission that was scrapped by Modi and replaced with the NITI Aayog, the setting up of a Diversity Commission to “measure, monitor and promote diversity in public and private employment and education”, a Permanent Commission on Agricultural Finance and a Judicial Complaints Commission “to investigate complaints of misconduct against judges”.

The party has also promised to set up a “Reconciliation Commission” in strife-torn Manipur to “bring about a political and administrative settlement that will be satisfactory to all the people of the state”.

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