The Congress manifesto shows no sign that it has learnt anything from its UPA misadventure.
It is promising more of the same.
The Congress manifesto for the 2019 general elections is, like a curate’s egg, good in parts. And the good parts are worth mentioning upfront since they are few and far between. They may never be implemented, but the thought itself is important.
First, there is the proposal to bifurcate the Supreme Court into two – a constitutional court and a court of appeals. Right now, the apex court serves both as a constitutional court and as a court of appeals, and does neither job competently. A constitutional court, like the US Supreme Court, can have 8-10 judges, while the court of appeals should have 30-40 at least. A National Judicial Commission to select judges is also proposed, but one wonders why the Congress party’s key legal eagles were part of the effort to get the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act, passed with overwhelming majorities by Parliament and state assemblies, scrapped.
Second, direct election of mayors with a five-year term. This is a great idea, and will make city governance better by making mayors accountable. Right now, chief ministers prefer to keep the urban development department under themselves in order to squeeze wealth out of cities, and they may fight tooth-and-nail to transfer powers to mayors. Cities are where jobs and innovation will happen, but our cities are cesspools of corruption and bad governance. But it’s an idea whose time has come – and citizens may well want this change.
Third, freeing micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) from the need to obtain various permissions (except labour and taxes) is a good thought, even if it is largely unimplementable. India has a toxic regulatory regime, where the law is enforced (or not enforced) by an extractive inspection system. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It is difficult to see how a fiat from the Centre alone is going to free MSMEs from the rigours of inspector raj, when most laws are in the ambit of states, who have to monitor pollution, give power connections, grant building permits, and implement labour laws.
Fourth, a bill to reserve 33 per cent of Parliament seats for women. Though this is an old idea, it is good that the Congress party has explicitly committed itself to it once more. It can pass if brought in as soon as the next government is formed in May-June 2019.
But if one looks at the larger messaging in the manifesto, which was unveiled by Rahul Gandhi at a press conference yesterday (2 April), it reeks of two perennial Congress failings: a mindset of feudalism, and the resulting arrogance. Being reduced to 44 seats in 2014 has clearly not robbed the Congress of its core “values”.
Let’s deal with the arrogance first. Rahul Gandhi had this to say about NYAY, the minimum income scheme for 20 per cent of the poor, and its implementability: “It is impossible for BJP, but it is possible for Congress and we will do it. Believe in me, I don’t lie.” And his financial Sancho Panza, P Chidambaram, echoed the same idea with some embellishment. “It is implementable by a wise and competent government. It cannot be implemented by a BJP government.”
History tells us otherwise. Every scheme initially thought up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government actually achieved its final form only under the implementation capabilities of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) under Narendra Modi. Whether it is Jan Dhan financial inclusion scheme, Aadhaar direct benefits transfers, the extension of power connections to the last home, the extension of free gas connections to 90 per cent of Indian households, the implementation of the goods and services tax or the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, ideas that were merely a gleam in the eye of the UPA were brought to fruition under Modi.
Only arrogance can account for Chidambaram’s statement that the BJP can implement nothing, and that it needs the wisdom and competence of the Congress to achieve anything in this country.
But feudal attitudes that go beyond arrogance dominate the manifesto, which is laden with ideas to make the government the benevolent mai-baap of the people. The promises include not only NYAY (the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, or the minimum income guarantee scheme for the bottom 20 per cent of the poor), but the introduction of several new rights: the Right to Healthcare, the Right to Homesteads, a Students’ Bill of Rights, et al.
So, despite 10 years of collective bad governance and irresponsibility from 2004-14, a UPA-3 under Rahul Gandhi will begin where his mother and Manmohan Singh left off – of turning India prematurely into a welfare state driven by rights that the state cannot stand guarantee for.
A key difference between the NDA under Modi and the UPA under Sonia Gandhi and (presumably) under Rahul Gandhi if it comes to power in 2019, would be this: the UPA acts on the demand side of welfare, where citizens are treated like feudal subjects who need a paternalistic state to give them what they need. Entitlement is the watchword under UPA.
Empowerment is the underlying theme for the NDA, where the government offers interest rate subventions for people to build their own homes, subsidies for gas connections to the poor but cylinder refills still have to be paid for, loans for the jobless to create their own sources of livelihood (MUDRA), and subventions for pensions where you still make the basic premium contributions (Atal Pension Yojana).
Put simply, the UPA is about acting on the demand side of welfare, where citizens are asked to demand rights that no one can yet provide, while the NDA focuses on the supply side, by creating the incentives for people and companies to provide social security and welfare.
One is the mindset of the feudal lord; the other is the elevating power of empowerment and self-upliftment. The UPA feeds fish to the hungry; the NDA encourages them to learn to fish by incentivising the same.
Given below are some of the other points in the manifesto, followed by comments on their feasibility, probability of success, and inherent flaws.
Manifesto proposal: GST to be made a single rate affair and simple. Petro-fuels to be brought under GST.
Comment: A single rate GST will be politically vulnerable to the charge that luxury items and products consumed by common man are charged the same. Bringing petro-fuels under GST means creating a new supertax rate, since fuel taxes are the highest revenue source for both Centre and states. Not likely to happen anytime soon, as the GST Council will have strong opposition representation.
Proposal: Education’s share of GDP to be raised to 6 per cent (from current 4.6 per cent), healthcare to be doubled to 3 per cent of GDP, and defence spending to be raised from current share of GDP.
Comment: Again, if we add NYAY costs of 1.4-1.5 per cent of GDP in 2023-24, it is impossible to raise all outlays across several sectors at the same time and yet keep the fiscal deficit at 3 per cent. The only way to achieve these competing objectives is to cut existing subsidies – which is not possible under a weak government led by Rahul Gandhi or anyone else among regional leaders.
Proposal: Special law to protect personal data. Aadhaar to be used only for subsidy and benefits.
Comment: Aadhaar is India’s unique platform, and if it is not used to enhance business opportunities and reduce cost of doing business, its potential will be suboptimally used. A lot of new MSMEs in the financial services sector were planning to use Aadhaar to build a scalable business model, but Aadhaar is only going to be used for delivering subsidies, it will impact precisely those MSMEs that Rahul Gandhi wants to help for generating jobs. As for privacy law, even under the NDA it is going to happen. Nothing new here.
Proposal: Congress to scrap NITI Aayog, electoral bonds, Citizenship Amendment Bill, abandon sedition law, and make defamation only a civil offence. Even farm loan defaults to attract only civil charges.
Comment: Scrapping NITI Aayog will make no difference, since it hasn’t exactly proved its worth, but bringing back the Planning Commission instead is not a great idea. It would make state financial allocations beholden to central whims. Scrapping electoral bonds won’t make a bit of difference to corruption or anti-corruption. Making defamation only a civil offence is the right move, but it also means that libel can go unchecked, since cases in civil courts drag on endlessly. Making farm loan defaults a civil offence makes no difference to anybody in a climate where waivers are the norm anyway. However, banks will be reluctant to lend to farmers in future.
Scrapping the Citizenship Amendment Bill is a signal to the minorities in India – and also anti-Hindu. The Citizenship Bill is intended to fast-track citizenship for persecuted minorities in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan, mostly Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Sikhs. This does not affect Muslims in India or in those countries. Clearly, the idea is to send a message that Muslims are not being excluded from it, even though it does not affect them in any way. But for Hindus it sends a wrong signal, since it implies that Rahul Gandhi will not try hard to help those persecuted by our Islamist neighbours.
Proposal: Probe into Rafale and NDA deals, and absconding tycoons like Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi.
Comment: This is a joke. There is no smoking gun in Rafale. At best, a Congress government can scrap the offset deal with Anil Ambani, but this won’t establish anything. Ambani will go to court and the matter will drag on endlessly – and one hopes the Rafale deal does not get delayed. As for probing Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi, both for defaulting on loans and defrauding banks, this is brazen nonsense. Both relate to loans given under UPA, and both have now lost their properties to a Modi era law for confiscation of fugitives’ property. Clearly, the point here is only political, and Congress has nothing but embarrassment ahead.
Proposal: Creation of a ministry of industry, services and employment, filling of four lakh job vacancies in government by 2020, and reinventing MGNREGA.
Comment: The key to employment is factor reform, in labour and land, and investment in skilling. None of this can happen merely with a merging of various ministries. As for MGNREGA, it remains a boondoggle, and rejigging it to entitle 150 days of work instead of the 100 days currently is probably needed. But it is an admission that even Congress cannot ultimately create jobs by a wave of the wand. They need to be artificially created though boondoggles like MGNREGA. As for filling job vacancies in government, Rahul Gandhi has to ask why governments are so slow in doing so. Answer: they lack fiscal space, thanks to endless farm loan waivers and offer of freebies to the voter. But Rahul Gandhi has promised more waivers and freebies. He may well employ four lakh people that the government does not really need, but it won’t solve the jobs problem in India.
Proposal: A separate budget for agriculture. Shifting farming from karz maafi to karz mukti.
Comment: This again is a joke. There is nothing a separate budget for agriculture can do that a ministry of agriculture, which makes its own budgets, cannot do. Nothing is spelt out on how farmers are to be extricated from karz maafi to karz mukti, unless farming is made viable. Nothing on this has however been proposed. Old policies will be tweaked and called new.
Proposal: A new law to punish hate crimes and mob lynching.
Comment: Again, a cruel joke, which will probably result in the reinvention of the UPA-era Communal Violence Bill that started with the presumption that all communal violence emanates from the majority community. Punishing lynching does not need a new law, but effective implementation of existing laws by depoliticising the police force, and expanding the ambit of the law. Nothing like that will happen if all budgetary resources are going to be allocated to pay for NYAY, education, healthcare, defence, and farm subsidies.
Proposal: Relook at Armed Forces Special Powers Act or AFSPA (in the context of J&K), appointment of three interlocutors to talk to all stakeholders in the state.
Comment: Three interlocutors were appointed even under UPA-2, but nothing came of it. Changes in the AFSPA will be resisted by the forces who see themselves fighting mob violence and jihadis under adverse conditions. One can expect token changes, but nothing substantial.
To sum up, the Congress manifesto shows no sign that it has learnt anything from its UPA misadventure. It is promising more of the same.