Herald View: A blueprint to repair India’s soul, its democracy

The ideological clarity behind the Congress manifesto in pulling towards a pluralist, egalitarian, truly federal India needs to be appreciated and supported by all citizens who care

Rahul Gandhi at the release of the Congress party manifesto for 2024 Lok Sabha elections. (Photo: Getty Images)
Rahul Gandhi at the release of the Congress party manifesto for 2024 Lok Sabha elections. (Photo: Getty Images) 

A tad bemused by the insipid response in the morning-after newspapers to the new Congress manifesto, we decided to ask the omniscient Dr Google to tell us more. The search string simply read: ‘Congress manifesto 2024’, and the idea was to check what the Google algo — revered and reviled in equal measure, for good reason — throws up as pages of high salience.

Unsurprisingly, all the top-cluster news results (not counting the manifesto document itself, shared by the Congress) were headlining the Prime Minister’s broadside about the allegedly ‘divisive Muslim League mindset’ of the manifesto.

We didn’t detect any serious attempt to engage with the text of the manifesto in these alleged news stories, and nothing to challenge the prime minister’s dog whistle.

It didn’t surprise us, and to this very point, i.e., the state of Indian media and the reasons why it finds itself in this bind, the manifesto says: ‘All media houses, irrespective of [their] size, will be required to disclose their ownership structures (direct and indirect), crossholdings, revenue streams, etc.’

It also talks about ‘[defending] independent journalism by enacting laws to protect journalists from coercive action by the State… restricting the powers of the government for surveillance of journalists, seizure of their devices and exposure of their sources.’

It talks of ‘a law to curb monopolies in the media, cross-ownership of different segments of the media, and control of the media by business organisations.’

Published: 13 Apr 2024, 5:35 PM IST

It correctly recognises that ‘many new laws (e.g., the Broadcasting Services (Regulation) Bill, 2023; Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023; Press and Registration of Periodicals Act, 2023, etc.) give unbridled powers of censorship to the government.’ And it says, if the Congress were to come to power, ‘the first named Bill will be withdrawn. The restrictive provisions of the two Acts will be amended or deleted to eliminate backdoor censorship.’

It has other sharp recommendations on restoring the independence of media, but the sad irony is that Indian media wants to bury these recommendations because it has lost the stomach to stand up for its rights.

The manifesto articulates the ways in which our democracy has been hollowed out, taking grim note of the attacks on institutions designed to counteract overreaching ambition in any arm of the State.

It takes on board the evisceration of autonomous institutions like the Election Commission of India (ECI), the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), the Central Information Commission (CIC) and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

It calls out the excesses of government surveillance of citizens and talks about the desperate need to review our criminal laws. It outlines the need and means to restrain elected representatives from playing fast and loose with their mandate. It even invokes a new ideal for the reconstitution of our Judiciary.

Published: 13 Apr 2024, 5:35 PM IST

A section titled ‘Saving Democracy, Removing Fear, Restoring Freedom’ notes that ‘India’s democracy has been reduced to an empty shell’.

And so, on restoring citizen freedoms, it promises, first of all, ‘freedom from fear’, but also ‘to restore freedom of speech and expression, including full freedom of the media’; ‘to remove provisions that restrict freedom of speech and expression and violate the right to privacy’; ‘to uphold people’s right to assemble peacefully and to form associations’; ‘to not interfere with personal choices of food and dress, to love and marry…’; ‘to repeal all laws that interfere unreasonably with personal freedoms’.

For anyone who has ever cared about our constitutional values and has lived in India over the past 10 years, the retreat of these freedoms from the lives of Indian citizens during this time is a truism.

Published: 13 Apr 2024, 5:35 PM IST

By any fair reckoning, this manifesto is a remarkable document. Some well-meaning observers have pointed out, though, that it is still only an expression of intent. True. But for its clear-eyed perspective on our doddering democracy, the ways in which it is sapped and maimed and why so, the manifesto deserves credit.

Also, the ideological clarity of the resolve to pull towards a pluralist (read: non-majoritarian), egalitarian, truly federal India needs to be recognised and supported by all citizens who care.

Considered as a whole, this manifesto is a blueprint to repair India’s soul, its democracy, it’s an attempt to reconnect with India’s civilisational genius and to guide the country towards becoming a fuller expression of the will of its very diverse people.

Published: 13 Apr 2024, 5:35 PM IST

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Published: 13 Apr 2024, 5:35 PM IST