Election manifestos are usually dull documents. By their very logic, they promise everyone something. They are the last slivers of a dull utopianism which construct a world where not many tough choices have to be made: There is a scheme or a policy for everyone. But they often elicit a yawn because by themselves they do not address the core political question: What is the credibility of the party making the promises? In an electorate that is used to having its hopes disappointed, there is always a sense that the real action is outside the manifesto. A manifesto can unwittingly turn into a reminder of past betrayals.
But once in a while, the political context makes a manifesto an interesting document. The Congress manifesto is being criticised for its “welfarism.” And certainly, its schemes should be subject to detailed scrutiny, as must the schemes of all other political parties. Are they financially sustainable? Administratively implementable? Do they lay the foundations of long-term inclusive growth? The Congress needs to raise its game in answering these questions.
But sometimes, the premise from which we enter the debate reveals a lot about ourselves. There are two typical reactions on welfare schemes. One is a shocked “How can India afford a modicum of economic justice?” — to which the proper reply is “How can India not afford a modicum of economic justice?” The second is partisanship. Some degree of what is pejoratively called welfarism is inscribed in the logic of democratic inclusion; and, well-designed, it is an aid to growth, not an impediment. To this extent, every party has its own version of the idea, and it is anathema only when it appears in the other’s manifesto. For BJP supporters, if Ayushman Bharat, an expensive way of delivering healthcare, had been in a Congress manifesto, it would have spelled economic armageddon; but in their own hands it is a genius scheme. On the production side, if the Congress says administrative simplicity on GST is called for; suddenly Congress’s taxation policy becomes anti-social justice. This is all par for the course in reactions to manifestos.
But what makes this Congress manifesto interesting is the context. It lays out a plan for resisting populism in the deepest sense of the term. The populism of the current moment is not captured by the competition to woo voters through various economic schemes. The populism of the current moment is a more dangerous and insidious one. It has five components.
The first is to whip up a politics of anxiety, by presenting India as being under relentless attack and in mortal peril from external and internal enemies. This anxiety is then the pretext for taking over the powers to define the meaning of nationalism. Nationalism must have more than a whiff of majoritarianism. We have now reached a new low in politics, where a prime minister brands his opponents running from an ostensibly “minority” constituency as an act of betrayal. Third, nationalism must be tied to a faux militarism. It is a faux militarism in the sense that it constantly peddles the illusion that extraordinary breakthroughs have taken place in our military responses to problems. To sustain that illusion, it creates a culture where elementary questions of fact and accountability are immobilised. Is Kashmir really more safe? Are our borders actually more secure? Fourth, given the state of anxiety we are in, power has to be personified. The nation’s unity can be reflected only in the persona of one leader, who has to colonise all patriotism, all virtue, all thought. Finally, the combination of psychological anxiety, resentful nationalism, faux militarism, and personification of power is mobilised in an undermining of institutions: Every institution has to serve the national purpose as defined by the leader. Strengthening of institutions is not to be judged by their integrity or autonomy, their consonance with constitutional values. They are all merely instruments for the consolidation of power.
It is in this context that the Congress manifesto needs to be judged. Its distinctiveness is not in the economics. Its distinctiveness is in its refusal to play the populist card where it really matters. In a context where nationalism is defined by how much power you can concentrate, the promise to disperse power across institutions is important. In a context where manufactured nationalism is a pretext to silence debate, the commitment to finally getting rid of laws like sedition, that should have been considered a scandal in any liberal democracy, is a quiet act of resistance. In a context where a populist impulse would have been to out militarise the present government, Congress quietly holds its ground on a foreign policy that does not peddle illusions that militarism alone will be the solution to India’s problems. And in a context where the populist temptation would have been to act as if India is besieged by enemies round every corner, the manifesto gives a sense of a liberal democracy calmly going about its business confidently, without stigmatising its own citizens.
The manifesto will not, by itself, settle many doubts. Just as many people look for an excuse to vote for Narendra Modi, many also look for an excuse to not vote for the Congress. It would be foolish to deny that, for many, the party still exudes memories of an old, corrupt and entitled order. The Congress carries considerable baggage. The politics of anxiety was perfected by both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Whatever they may say now, the Congress was not shy of using sedition laws or cravenly succumbing to those assaulting free speech. The Congress let down Manmohan Singh on crucial occasions in his Pakistan policy. And while the Congress does not have the capacity for the total mobilisation of institutions in the service of political power, many still have a revulsion against its own history of sycophancy. Given how little change in personnel there has been in the Congress over the last five years, it still has to bridge a credibility gap with a number of voters.
But the manifesto, unusually, has achieved one moral victory. Voters will decide whether the Congress will have the courage to shed its own baggage and live up to its promises. But when the mere enunciation of the idea that we need to go back to first principles to strengthen civil liberties, or disperse power, invites a response to the effect that “this is a manifesto for the tukde tukde gang,” you know that a die has been cast. It has put the BJP in a position of saying that even decency and liberty are anti-national conspiracies.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 5, 2019, under the title ‘Resisting populism’. The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University.