POLITICS
08/04/2019 11:32 AM IST

Congress Manifesto Promises To Bring Liberal Ideas Back To Centre Stage: Rajeev Gowda

The convener of the Congress' manifesto committee explains in an interview how the party will keep its key promises, including NYAY, jobs, AFSPA and sedition law, if it comes to power.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Gowda, convener of the Congress's manifesto committee, in a file photo.

New Delhi―Last week, when the Congress released its electionmanifesto, some unusually bold promises in the document received wide attention. While several sections praised the Congress’s overall emphasis on a set of liberal policy proposals, the BJP responded with strong criticism of the opposition party’s promise to scrap the sedition law and amend the controversial Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act.

Rajya Sabha MP from Karnataka, Rajeev Gowda, the convener of the Congress’s Manifesto Committee, played an important role in preparing the much-discussed document. Speaking with HuffPost India for this interview, Gowda explained why the Congress party thinks it important to bring liberal ideas “to centrestage’ in today’s context when the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is pushing a strongly right-wing nationalist agenda in public discourse. He also believes that the Congress President’s pet NYAY programme will attract voters to the Grand Old Party in the forthcoming parliamentary election. Responding to the BJP’s criticism about proposing an amendment to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, Gowda says that the ruling party is “trying to twist” the Congress’ promise and all that his party wants to do is “balance security with human rights.”

Edited excerpts from an interview:

What do you have to say to those who have been astonished by the extraordinary inclusion of liberal ideas in your manifesto at a time when public discourse is geared towards patriotism, nationalism and things like that?

One aspect of the manifesto is about paying attention to the disadvantaged. And we want to make sure that nobody is victimised unfairly and we have to take care of that. So, if we take the issue of sedition―our promise is very carefully worded. Basically we have been saying that sedition law has been misused a lot against journalists, victims of hate crime and university students by doctoring tapes; tapes are doctored but students are facing charges! Protestors on environmental issues face sedition charges. It has been misused and it’s crushing the right to dissent. So that doesn’t have any place any more. You don’t want to give a weapon that’s just going to be used against everyone.

We are absolutely concerned about national security and anti-terrorism and related issues also. What the sedition law says is that it is supposed to be about waging war against the state. There are other laws like the Defence of India Act, The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act―they cover (legal action against the same illegal activities) with safeguards.

Today, if you look at the discourse, it’s all about anti-nationals. By definition, anyone who is anti-national must be indulging in sedition? The latest addition may be Yogi Adityanath who General V K Singh said is a deshdrohi for having said, “Modiji ki sena”. If he is a deshdrohi, then sedition charges must be imposed on him. He shouldn’t be going around campaigning for the BJP.

There seems to be a clear ideological emphasis on liberalism. Is the Congress finally being unapologetically liberal in its economic and social outlook?

Yeah. That’s what we are, actually. Congress is the only liberal party in India.

Do you think in this political atmosphere, liberal ideas have currency among voters?  What kind of ideas do you believe must be promoted?

Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of intolerance. Filmmakers, media and others being crushed. That’s not what our democracy should be about. So it’s important to bring back liberal ideas to centre stage.

Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of intolerance. Filmmakers, media and others being crushed. That’s not what our democracy should be about. So it’s important to bring back liberal ideas to centre stage.

But the BJP has criticised your promise to amend AFSPA. How do you respond?

Liberalism is also about making sure that our armed forces, for example, are strong and fully capable of dealing with any challenges. At the same time, it is also about ensuring that our own citizens are not subject to any excesses like torture, rape and forced disappearances. That’s what the nuance is on AFSPA. They are trying to twist that. For AFSPA, we are trying to balance security with human rights.

To your mind, what is the key saleable aspect of this manifesto from a voters’ standpoint?

See, 20% of India’s poorest households will benefit from NYAY. They can either say, we will vote for someone who gives false promises or they can say this is a party that has delivered before and we should have faith in it. Then there are various other segments. We have various progressive things for women, for the middle class, trading communities.

What do you have for the middle class?

A range of things. When we talk about air pollution, public transport, accessible affordable, high quality healthcare and education, job creation―all of these are for the middle class also. That’s another significant chunk (of voters). Then we have something for old people, ex-servicemen, LGBTQIA+.

You have promised to scrap the Transgender Bill. What, to your mind, is the problem with that?

Transgender Bill has a lot of issues with it. We are opposing it already, that’s why it didn’t come to the upper house. You have to go and get a medical check and a board will determine whether you are a transgender (person) or not. I think matters of sexual identities are in people’s heads―not in people’s bodies necessarily. That’s the basic issue on that front.

The questions of jobs has been given first priority in your manifesto. One of your promises is to set up a new ministry named ministry of industry, services and employment. How does renaming existing ministries help?

We already have a ministry of labour and employment but sometimes you need to repurpose. This is not renaming. It’s about repurposing an organisation. Stop thinking in these terms, now think about how to unleash a jobs revolution. How do you support this? So we will have something called an Enterprise Support Agency that will be under this. It will work with you (an investor) if you want to set up a new online portal and you want some help, some guidance in this, we will give you that.

So it is about aiding entrepreneurs to set up businesses?

Yeah. So it is a much bigger initiative than you might think was the case earlier.

There is a mention of filling in four lakh vacancies in the government. You have even given a date, end of the current fiscal year, if your party was to be elected. Is it practically possible?How will you manage the books?

These are jobs that have already been sanctioned and budgeted. Now it is a question of hiring people through a formal process. Resources keep increasing every year and under us (Congress government), they will keep increasing at a rapid rate. If these positions were sanctioned with a particular purpose, then obviously the government is not fulfilling that purpose. We need to make sure that the positions are filled

What about reviving private investment?

We are going to be opening up to FDI 100% (in most sectors) and treat it as national capital. Meaning practically the same as Indian capital except one or two no go areas. Then the other thing is that we are going to find ways to make sure that the savings rate picks up. Because then investment will also pick up. Then we will also find ways, having learned lessons from its history, to improve public and private partnership (projects) as well.

How is ‘Make for the World’ different from ‘Make in India’? It just looks like rearranging words...

It’s an approach. You know, Hyundai, makes in India for the world. We are emphasising the second part. Come and make in India and put your own brand and don’t acknowledge it is of no use. It will make Brand India recognisable across the world.

How will ‘exclusive export-only zones’ be different from ‘Special Economic Zones’?

Special Economic Zones were partly export-oriented; not necessarily only. And were also subject to tax and other regulatory holidays. So here we will have something similar (tax holidays). That’s because exports have fallen dramatically under this government. We need to revive exports. Exports will create jobs, various other kinds of revenue. The chain behind it will also make a huge difference.

Liberalism is also about making sure that our armed forces, for example, are strong and fully capable of dealing with any challenges. At the same time, it is also about ensuring that our own citizens are not subject to any excesses like torture, rape and forced disappearances. That’s what the nuance is on AFSPA. They are trying to twist that. For AFSPA, we are trying to balance security with human rights.

About NYAY, it says in the first year, it will cost 1% of the GDP and from second year onwards, it will be 2% of the GDP. Does that mean full implementation will happen second year onwards?
I would expect so. Because we want to do pilot testing. We are not going to just do a midnight session of Parliament to launch it. We are going to put in place the kind of testing, we need to work with data, do a bit of piloting, testing then the rollout.

Also about NYAY and subsidies. What kind of subsidies will go? What do you find are excessive?

When the Prime Minister promised that he is going to double farmers’ income, did you ask him the question about how he is going to do that? Essential subsidies will be retained, some others will be rationalised. So we may want to check how the fertiliser subsidy is doing? Is it achieving its intended goal? We may look into issues regarding revenue foregone. A lot of money is not coming in from industry, for example. There are ways of rationalising without essentially losing track of what we are doing.

One other thing that has not got the required attention is this promise about reviving the rural employment guarantee scheme, calling it MGNREGA 3.0. Increasing the number of days of maximum guaranteed employment from 100 to 150.  

What’s happened under this government is that even 100 days of payments there are not giving, They are busy delaying everything. They want to discourage people from using NREGA. How do they do that? You delay the payments. There are people desperate for some income and you delay the payments for three, six months.

They say that the amount of budgeted expenditure is growing year-on-year?

What is this logic? If the country is growing and the people have no options, then they won’t come and access NREGA. What you are seeing here is a clear indication that there’s tremendous distress.

But how will you ensure people get work for 150 days?

Only in some places it will ever reach that number. It is saying, go ahead (and demand work; you will get it).