The Congress party’s manifesto for the impending elections iterates two of the fundamental pillars of constitutional, liberal democracy as conceived in theory and by the makers of the Constitution: the principles of liberalism and equality, embracing dissent and undermining discrimination; and the idea of welfare, committing the state to fulfilling the duty of providing decent living conditions to all citizens.
One set of intentions can be grouped together under the banner of ‘liberalism’. The manifesto promises to scrap the colonial-era sedition law, a complete anachronism; pass a law to prevent and punish hate speech; act against caste and communal violence, especially to prevent vigilantism; dilute the infamous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, often a vehicle for armed forces personnel to commit barbarities with impunity; set up an interfaith council to promote dialogue and understanding; pass a law to provide safeguards against excessive surveillance by arms of the state; amend laws to prevent investigative agencies from arbitrarily exercising powers to search, seize, summon, interrogate and arrest in line with constitutional and legal restrictions; and enact a law prohibiting discrimination on all grounds, one presumes to strengthen a provision already enshrined in the Constitution (Article 14).
This sounds like an ambitious wish-list, but most liberal democracies have laws protecting such rights: briefly, the right to free speech even when it amounts to dissent against the existing order; the right to privacy; the right to equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination; protection against arbitrary punitive action by arms of the state; and the existence of an open society in which people or communities of different persuasions live more or less in harmony through dialogue, truth and reconciliation.
The point is that the Congress and its president, Rahul Gandhi, possibly deemed it necessary to restate these fundamental positions because of what the current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has been doing for the past five years. It has been guilty of leading the assault on all manner of liberal values and the life and liberty of the citizens of this country by blatantly misusing special, and often unnecessary, laws to imprison and otherwise harass all those it considers its political rivals and even those who do not fit its criteria of belonging – only Hindutva-minded Hindus and browbeaten members of minority communities need apply. Dalits,
Muslims, liberals and leftists, civil rights activists and providers of humanitarian services, and dissentient voices have all felt the heavy hand of BJP-directed agencies clamped against their throats.
If a Congress-led dispensation manages to fructify even a fraction of the promises made in the manifesto, the BJP and its Mephistophelean father-figure, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, could find itself permanently emasculated, ideologically and organizationally, which is why inveterate blogger and non-functional Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has once again taken to haunting cyberspace with his typically uninformed, jejune and, frankly, proto-fascist fulminations.
His contention is that the manifesto has been drafted by Rahul Gandhi’s friends in the ‘tukde-tukde’ gang, one of the Sangh Parivar’s more cretinous coinages in their world full of imbecilic coinages, and that it is a recipe for the Balkanization of India. It is to be seriously doubted whether Jaitley knows what Balkanisation means and the historical context in which it happened.
At any rate, Jaitley’s inane criticism springs from one source, which has been evident ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power: the fact that the BJP consistently conflates the prime minister, his government and the party with the nation-state and the people. Thus, every criticism of Modi, his government or the BJP is somehow transformed in their demented imaginings into a criticism of India and its people. It becomes an act of treason to be dealt with by hauling out dusty laws like those on sedition. It’s high time the BJP is made to realise that it is just a sectarian, remote-controlled party
The manifesto also encapsulates a welcome commitment to the welfare state. To this end it promises the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, which envisages making cash transfers to the tune of ₹72,000 a year to families in the bottom quintile (50 million in number); the commitment to giving the highest of priorities to job-creation; the promise to pass a right to healthcare act; guarantee universal housing; strengthen existing provisions for free and compulsory education; and focus on rescuing farmers from their desperate straits and make farming profitable through a ‘kisan budget’.
The likelihood is that all of these objectives will not be fulfilled. But the job of a manifesto is to formulate a vision, it’s not meant to be a policy document. And the vision the Congress has presented looks pretty good.
(The author is an independent commentator based in Kolkata)