Two poll manifestos, two different mindsets - Hindustan Times
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Two poll manifestos, two different mindsets

Apr 17, 2024 10:06 PM IST

As India gears up for history’s biggest-ever elections, it is important to enquire about the mindset of its two biggest parties — the Congress and the BJP

As India gears up for history’s biggest-ever elections, it is important to enquire about the mindset of its two biggest parties — the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which to some extent is evident in their poll manifestos.

FILE- India’s opposition Congress party leaders from left, Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Rahul Gandhi, display copies of party’s election manifesto during a press conference in New Delhi, India, April 5, 2024. India's 6-week-long general election starts on April 19 and results will be announced on June 4. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)(AP) PREMIUM
FILE- India’s opposition Congress party leaders from left, Sonia Gandhi, Mallikarjun Kharge, and Rahul Gandhi, display copies of party’s election manifesto during a press conference in New Delhi, India, April 5, 2024. India's 6-week-long general election starts on April 19 and results will be announced on June 4. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)(AP)

Both are strong on welfare for the marginalised, education, health, economy, environment, jobs, defence and infrastructure. Both promise some progressive actions, for example, renewable energy, sustaining cultural heritage, multi-modal urban transportation, and cleaner air and water. On some specific counts, the BJP scores higher, such as the adoption of natural farming, promoting learning in the mother tongue and traditional sports, and advancing sustainable consumption. On others, the Congress scores: Examples include the promise of “same work, same wage” for men and women, self-reliance of panchayats in energy, climate resilience, free and universal health care, urban job guarantees, and linking ecological restoration to livelihood creation.

Sadly, some crucial actions that could lead India to achieve these goals are missing in both. For decades, heavy industrialisation-driven policies have led to jobless growth despite high economic growth. This has also led to the destruction of millions of traditional occupations like crafts. The parties could have prioritised reservation of several manufacturing and service sectors for micro and small production units. Multi-modal transport is essential, but neither manifesto explicitly prioritises cycling, walking and buses. Both list environment-related actions, but these lack coherence without a comprehensive land and water use, and environmental governance policy. Neither lists the need to diversify indicators of well-being, rather than relying on concepts such as GDP. Education in both remains top-down and homogenised rather than a localised, community-integrated, ecologically rooted approach built on multiple knowledge systems. While promising green energy, neither asks the question: How much energy demand is sustainable?

Instead, both promise ecologically and socially disruptive actions. The Congress lauds its record in ushering India into the global economy in 1991. The BJP promises an intensification of the same when it says India will become the world’s third-largest economy and offers to turn nearly all sectors into “global” hubs or models with digitisation. Fragile areas like the islands are targeted for global tourist flow by the BJP; this is alarming, as indicated by a proposed mega-project in Nicobar that will destroy 130 sq km of prime rainforest and dispossess some of India’s oldest tribal populations. Its focus on mega-solar, wind, hydro and nuclear energy projects has also led to land-grabbing and ecological damage. Both, ironically, mention they will be mindful of sustainability.

Here, the similarities end. On many macro dimensions, there are crucial differences. While the BJP treats Bharat’s people as recipients of State largesse (reinforcing the colonial “mai-baap” mentality), the Congress offers to empower citizens through rights they can use to hold the government accountable. In this, it is reviving its record of promulgating several rights-based laws in the early 2000s. The mention of “rights” comes only once in the BJP manifesto, and it offers nothing on strengthening democracy (other than the cliché of Bharat being the “Mother of Democracy”). The Congress notes the alarming reduction of citizens’ spaces in recent years and promises several actions — reviving federalism (with specific mention of empowering Ladakh, Kashmir, Puducherry and Delhi), returning autonomy to academic institutions, the media, the judiciary, and constitutionally mandated institutions (like Election Commission, and Human Rights Commission), all of which have been severely undermined of late. It adds the establishment of an independent Environment Authority. It notes the need to safeguard personal rights and the right to privacy, something the BJP is silent on other than promising a Uniform Civil Code, a move that has generated enormous controversy. The only concession the BJP gives to village governance is more fiscal autonomy to panchayats, an important proposal, of course, while the Congress says it will ensure gram sabha powers for all panchayat functions. It promises equality for women through several measures and specifically mentions the rights of disabled people and LGBTQIA+ (the BJP mentions only transgenders, and “divyangs” in a limited context). An innovative promise by the Congress is a right to apprenticeship for all graduates, and its promises to unorganised workers are framed more in the language of empowerment than charity. It also lists actions to bring back communal harmony and stop hate speech and hate crimes. The BJP is silent on these issues.

We know that poll manifestos can be easily forgotten once a party comes to office. But they do indicate a mindset. On that count, given its focus on empowerment, decentralisation, democratic freedoms and rights-based justice, the Congress manifesto seems to score over the BJP’s top-down patronage approach.

Ashish Kothari is an environmentalist based in Pune. The views expressed are personal

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