The Congress manifesto warms over the old welfarist promises, failing to find a new appeal.
At a time when the entire political field is defined in opposition to the UPA, the Congress party has a special challenge ahead of it. It is weighed down by 10 years of incumbency — its mistakes are acutely clear, its positives taken for granted. So can the Congress do a hard reset, and give voters a fresh reason to believe in it? Its manifesto does not try hard enough.
Just as it convinced itself that its 2009 re-election was a reward for MGNREGA and other populist boondoggles, rather than years of solid growth and buoyant cities, it now thinks that it can impress voters with more of the same. Leading the manifesto is a new set of rights — to health, pension, housing, dignity and humane working conditions, and even a “right to entrepreneurship”. This is presented as an attempt to bring most of the working population into the middle class, but it displays the same cognitive kink that has characterised the UPA years.
It fails to understand that people can heave themselves into the middle class, that they don’t need an abstract charter of rights but a thriving economy and the opportunities that it creates. The Congress has persistently misunderstood that message: on food security, it responded to a narrow need with a vast, distorting law; on land acquisition, it cast industry as a predator that must be moderated. Just as well, because its foreign policy mentions nurturing the old goodwill with socialist countries.
There are some new touches in this manifesto that suggest economic prudence — given the press on limited resources, it says, “choose the subsidies that are absolutely necessary and give them only to the absolutely deserving”. It spoke of introducing “user charges” for the many who are willing to pay for better services, and to redirect that money towards health and education spending. The manifesto also tried to make amends for some of the UPA’s missteps, promising a stable tax environment. It talked up industrial corridors, labour flexibility and financial sector reforms.
It shows a clear appreciation for the greatest challenge confronting the next government — education, employment and employability, but much of the UPA’s skilling plan is still at a preliminary stage, and the manifesto provides no specifics. Even though it speaks of moving from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan to a Shreshth Shiksha Abhiyan, focusing on learning outcomes, better teacher training and the like, the Congress manifesto is largely unable to make the leap to how opportunity can be expanded, how delivery can be improved. Like many manifestos, the Congress document is vague on how its aims will be achieved, and what it will prioritise. While challengers can get by with misty visions of change, tired incumbents have to try harder.