Congress manifesto: Explaining the poll promises

Al Jazeera spoke to experts to understand the main promises made by Indian opposition party ahead of national elections.

Rahul Gandhi, President of India''s main opposition Congress party, and India''s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh leave after releasing their party''s election manifesto for the April/May general ele
Rahul Gandhi said Congress would expand an existing jobs programme to guarantee 150 days of work a year to rural households [Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

India’s main opposition Congress party has promised to launch the world’s largest minimum income guarantee scheme if voted to power.

The scheme, known as NYAY, is the flagship proposal in the Congress manifesto released by party president Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday. The manifesto, which comes less than two weeks before the first phase of polling for the general elections, is titled Hum Nibhayegnge (or “We will deliver”).

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was quick to denounce the scheme as a bluff.

Senior leaders of the Hindu nationalist BJP were particularly scathing in their reactions to aspects of the Congress manifesto, which promised to repeal controversial sedition laws and relax provisions of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that grants immunity to security forces.

Al Jazeera spoke to experts in order to better understand the top five poll promises.

NYAY (Nyoontam Aay Yojana)

The acronym NYAY also means justice in many Indian languages. Under the scheme, the poorest 20 percent of the country – an estimated 250 million people – will receive a monthly income of Rs 6,000 ($87). It will cost the exchequer Rs 3.6 lakh crore ($52bn), making it the world’s largest minimum-income guarantee programme, if implemented.

... the assurance made by the Congress party to bring diversity in the higher and lower level of judiciary with respect to caste, gender, religion and region is an extremely important promise

by Prof Sumeet Mhaskar, the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy

Professor R Ramkumar said that NYAY had been proposed by Congress to counter direct cash transfer schemes floated by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“The big question is how will this be implemented in a country where there is no reliable data on household or individual income?” asked Ramkumar, who teaches at the Centre for Study of Developing Economies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

“There needs to be a proper income survey, which itself can take up to three years. How will the beneficiaries be identified year after year?”

Professor Ramkumar also said that the two main parties, Congress and the ruling BJP, are trying to outdo the other by announcing large-outlay welfare schemes that do nothing to address the root causes of systemic poverty such as poor quality education and unemployment.

“The same $52bn can be spent on ensuring universal free education and healthcare. Job guarantee schemes such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) are more effective tools against poverty than income guarantee schemes,” he said.

Human rights and minority empowerment

The Congress party’s boldest announcement in the manifesto was that it would scrap colonial-era sedition laws and dilute AFSPA, as well as pass a law against custodial torture.

It has drawn a sharp reaction from a top BJP leader, who accused the Congress of trying to “demoralise” the armed forces and please “traitors and separatists”.

In the last 10 years, with the rise of Modi and the BJP, the trend of monopolies in the media has increased. The hidden plumbing of most media outlets are just not known to the public

by Vinod K Jose, editor of Caravan magazine

Welcoming the proposal, student leader and activist Umar Khalid said: “We must not forget that the Congress has been primarily responsible for using these draconian laws [in the past].”

He pointed out that the human rights activist and Binayak Sen was charged with sedition by Congress in 2007 when it was in power.

Khalid, who was himself charged with sedition in 2016 along with a group of left-wing student activists from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, said that countless similar cases have been filed against tribal activists with the sole purpose of harassment.

“The cases eventually fall apart in courts but the idea has been to frustrate activists with long jail terms as under-trials,” he said.

More than two-thirds of prisoners in India are under-trials.

Khalid also said that he was disappointed but not surprised by the absence of specific programmes for minorities in the manifesto.

Media reforms

One of the most significant points in the manifesto is the promise to break monopolies, cross-holding of shares and cartelisation in the media.

Vinod K Jose, editor of the Caravan magazine, which has reported extensively on media corruption, welcomed the announcement and said it has was important, “more than ever in the past”.

“In the last 10 years, with the rise of Modi and the BJP, the trend of monopolies in the media has increased. The hidden plumbing of most media outlets are just not known to the public,” he said.

“Some feeble attempts to contain monopolies in the media were made earlier too. But this time, if the BJP is defeated, we may actually see some action against media monopolies. For the parties in the opposition now, it has become a matter of survival.”

Jose added that the massive corporate takeover of the media that coincided with the BJP’s ascendancy has made it more biased in favour of the ruling establishment.

“Today, some of the largest newspapers and [news] channels simply block out the opposition parties from their coverage. Their press conferences and political rallies are ignored, and they are shouted out of prime-time debates by news anchors who are soft on the BJP.”

Foreign affairs and defence

The manifesto promises to push for a permanent seat for India at the UN Security Council as well as membership in the elite Nuclear Suppliers Group of countries.

It also proposes that the post of National Security Advisor, which is an ad hoc appointment right now, will be made permanent and answerable to parliament.

Ajai Shukla, a defence and foreign policy expert, told Al Jazeera that there are no surprising departures in the party’s foreign policy proposals. A permanent seat for India in the Security Council and membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, he said, are “boilerplate” issues that every political party would mention.

Shukla said that the promise to review the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the old Sedition Act was the “significant departures.

“I also welcome the proposal to create an institutional framework to regulate the National Security Council and the office of the NSA,” he said.

Social justice

The 55-page document says the party will work to increase diversity in the higher judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court which doesn’t have a single judge from the Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities, which form nearly 30 percent of the population.

Professor Sumeet Mhaskar from the Jindal School of Government and Public Policy said that the judiciary has always operated like an “exclusive club” and lacked diversity.

“Therefore, the assurance made by the Congress party to bring diversity in the higher and lower level of judiciary with respect to caste, gender, religion and region is an extremely important promise. However, to execute this change, Congress will require a strong political will,” he said.

Akkai Padmashali, a prominent LGBT activist, welcomed the Congress’ promise to scrap the transgender bill that failed to grant transgender individuals the right to self-identify as male or female. “It will be a huge victory for us if the promise is actually fulfilled. It will acknowledge our presence in society and grant us dignity.”

Source: Al Jazeera