A 54-page document has set the cat among the pigeons. That the BJP is a flock of pigeons — ignore the boast about a 56-inch chest — was proved by the apoplectic fit that seized the BJP after the release of the Congress party’s Election Manifesto (CEM) for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Manifestos have, usually, a short shelf life. The CEM hit the headlines within minutes of its release on April 2, but acquired a new dimension with every passing hour. By the end of the day, and certainly by the end of April 5, the key manifesto promises had reached every city and town and also the villages that were close to urban areas. I am certain that television and the campaigners will carry the key promises to others within a few days. The message is so powerful that the messengers are obliged to carry it.
What is different about CEM 2019 that has made it the talk of the town (and the village) within a few hours? The answer is that the CEM is the voice of the people. I can say with utmost confidence that every idea or promise in the CEM was suggested by a citizen of India either in writing or at one of the 174 consultations across the country. The draftspersons simply wrote the sentences capturing the ideas in precise language.
BJP is riled
Normally, it is the ruling party’s manifesto that is criticised by the opposition parties. I cannot remember an occasion in recent times when an opposition party’s manifesto was attacked so vehemently by the ruling party. It raises the question, why? What has got the goat of the BJP?
I can think of a few things that must have riled the BJP. First, the promise of jobs. Unemployment is at a 45-year high of 6.1 per cent. There were obvious and immediate solutions but, ignoring the obvious, Mr Modi promised to create 2 crore jobs a year. That promise has returned to haunt the BJP. Instead of creating jobs, the BJP government destroyed jobs through demonetisation and a flawed GST. The official report of the NSSO puts the number of jobs lost at 4 crore, 70 lakhs. The CEM has identified many obvious ways to employ the large number of unemployed youth. A simple step like filling all the vacancies in government etc will employ nearly 24 lakh young people.
Next, the CEM’s bold approach to the agriculture sector. Even as the BJP was deriding the idea of a farm loan waiver, the CEM announced that outstanding agricultural loans will be waived. Pointing out that the BJP had waived the loans of insolvent companies (the ‘haircut’ so far is Rs 84,585 crore), the Congress justified a farm loan waiver. Two other promises in the CEM have caught the interest of farmers: a separate Kisan budget and no more criminal cases against farmers to enforce an essentially civil liability of recovering an overdue loan. The CEM also promised 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 of the country.
Not Shying Away
The CEM did not shy away from addressing issues that are sensitive. For women, it promised the passage of the women’s reservation Bill and reservation of one-third of all posts in the government. For SCs, STs and OBCs, it promised an Equal Opportunities Commission, more affirmative action and reservation in private higher education institutions. The CEM also contained promises to senior citizens, linguistic and religious minorities, persons with disabilities and the LGBTQIA+ community. After reading the CEM, every section felt included.
The CEM dealt with issues of national security, internal security and foreign policy and challenged the BJP on its failed policies and actions. When Mr Arun Jaitley raised questions, the Congress hit back with facts and counter questions. Why have the number of infiltration attempts, the number of infiltrators and the number of casualties increased in Jammu & Kashmir? Why was AFSPA withdrawn totally from Tripura in 2015, from Meghalaya in 2018 and from three districts of Arunachal Pradesh on April 1, 2019? Is the BJP supporting enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture? Why is Section 124A (sedition), a colonial-era provision, necessary when Parliament has made the Defence of India Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act? It is apparent that the Congress has rediscovered its combative skills and was willing to take the fight to the BJP. I welcome the debate but I am disappointed that the Prime Minister’s speeches are becoming shriller and shriller by the day.
Wanted: Battle of Ideas
The BJP has not released its manifesto yet. The first phase of polling is on April 11, barely four days from Sunday. I suspect that the BJP is revising its draft manifesto hurriedly to counter the CEM. That is good. Let the BJP engage in a battle of ideas. So far, the BJP has relied on hyper-nationalism and abuse. I would welcome it if the BJP shifts its campaign to ideas and arguments.
I do not like the idea of multi-phase polling but, given the charged atmosphere, it is perhaps unavoidable. Between phases, the media must play a neutral role of reporting the news and the Election Commission must enforce the rules without discrimination. Over to the people of India.