When it comes to manifestos of political parties,a section of the intelligentsia and the media exhibits a dismissive tendency that riles political activists like me. A major national daily last week called manifesto-making nothing but a cut-and-paste job. This tendency is symptomatic of a larger habit of the chatterati sneering from the comfort of their well-furnished drawing rooms at all political parties,indeed at the political process in general. The reality is quite otherwise. Most political parties,especially those with a national perspective,have begun taking policy issuesand,by extension,manifesto preparationfar more seriously than before.
Now it is the turn of the media to take manifestos more seriously and catalyse a widespread public debate,x-raying both their specific assurances and their overarching visions. The performance of parties in power,especially,has to be scrutinised closely. At the same time,the assurances of those making a bid for power also have to be subjected to rigorous examination from the point of view of commitment,feasibility and their earlier track record. A debate of this kind will make political parties more accountable,the electorate more well-informed,and Indias democracy more enriched.
The Congress manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections 2009,which was released last week,has escaped a serious scrutiny in the media. The one thing to be said in its favour is that it is very well written. It has made up in style what it largely lacks in substance. It is excessive on self-congratulation but certainly not shoddy in its architecture. On substantive matters,however,it fails the test of satisfying a searching mind. Look at the points on which the Congress manifesto is silent. There is not a word in it on fighting corruption. Its as if in the assessment of the Congress leadership,the problem does not exist at all. Not surprising since the partys track record of five years in government shows that it took no steps to fight corruption. The war against corruption requires personal conviction,moral courage and political authority. Sadly,these were not the qualities that Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh demonstrated during his five years in office. To his credit,not even his worst critics questioned his integrity in financial matters. However,by allowing blatant misuse of institutions to let Ottavio Quattarocchi,the Italian wheeler-dealer who was the prime accused in the Bofors scandal,go scot-free,he made it known that fighting corruption was not on his personal agenda. Any remnant of moral authority that he had in this matter evaporated when he permitted the cash-for- votes scandal to be enacted last year to purchase the allegiance of opposition MPs just to keep his government afloat after the Left parties withdrew their support to it.
The Congresss silence on this issue is especially regrettable since none other than Rajiv Gandhi (whose name appears six times in a laudatory manner in the manifesto) had lamented,in his initial idealistic years in office,that only 15 paise out of every rupee sanctioned by the Central government for various anti-poverty schemes reached the end beneficiary. He said so in 1985. Has the situation changed for the better in the past 24 years? Only last month,the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India censured the UPA government for improper accounts on Rs 51,000 crore earmarked for various anti-poverty schemes,including the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The NREGS is a good programme and the UPA government deserves credit for launching it. However,it would have received greater encomiums if it had strengthened,in cooperation with state governments,the delivery mechanism for various development schemes.
The second problem on which the Congress maintains a conspiratorial silence in its manifesto is the massive influx of infiltrators from Bangladesh. It has reached such alarming proportions,especially in Assam,that the Supreme Court has described it as external aggression and urged the central government to take effective and urgent steps. Dr Singh has been a member of the Rajya Sabha from Assam for the past 18 years. The fact that the Congress manifesto does not even pay lip service to saving Assam from this menace means either that Dr Singh believes that the problem doesnt exist or that his lips are sealed on account of his partys votebank politics.
Another regrettable feature of the Congress manifesto is its promise to introduce religion-based reservations for minorities (read Muslims) in government employment and education. True,a large section of Muslims are victims of poverty and backwardness. But does the solution to this problem lie in reservations,that too on the ground of religion? The proposed policy wont benefit Muslims much,but it certainly will solidify minority and majority identities and further widen the divide between the two. Indeed,this could embolden those who have been demanding,for a long time,proportionate representation in the Parliament and state legislatures. Why not,instead,work for a national consensus on reservations on the basis of the economic criteria for all communities while retaining the existing quota benefits for SCs and STs?
Indias experience with the quota system has clearly driven home an important truth,which the political class has so far not been able to grasp with courage. That truth is: quotas alone are not a panacea. Be it for the minority or majority communities,or even for the SCs and STs themselves,our country has to look beyond reservations. A different approach to affirmative action,rooted in a radically different model of socio-economic development and strongly aligned to a vision of justice for all but discrimination against none,is needed. Not even a hint of it is visible in the Congress manifesto.