Congress manifesto: Does India's opposition have what it takes to unseat Narendra Modi?

Congress's Rahul Gandhi says India is in 'deep crisis' after five years of Modi, but his party lags far behind in polls

Adam Withnall
Tuesday 02 April 2019 18:09
President of the Congress party Rahul Gandhi speaks after releasing its election manifesto
President of the Congress party Rahul Gandhi speaks after releasing its election manifesto

India’s main opposition Congress party has promised to “create wealth and guarantee welfare” in an election manifesto it hopes will inspire voters to unseat Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Trailing in the polls and fighting to keep focus on its key election issues, the party of such famous leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru has also struggled to present its current president, Rahul Gandhi, as a credible candidate to replace Mr Modi.

In a bid to turn its fortunes around, Congress has made some big promises to voters: its manifesto offers a minimum basic wage for the country’s poorest people; to double spending on healthcare; and to support farmers with a string of policies designed to ease their money woes.

India was in a “deep crisis” after five years of a Modi administration that has “trample[d] upon people’s rights”, Mr Gandhi said, as he vowed to protect personal freedoms and the multicultural fabric of society.

There were progressive policies too to go along with the rhetoric. Congress would reserve a third of all government jobs and seats in parliament for women, he said, and scrap the use of colonial-era “sedition” laws that critics say have been used to impinge on free speech.

But with less than 10 days until voting begins in the mammoth, six-week long general election, there is a danger that the party is playing it too safe to make a dent in the BJP’s formidable lead, said analyst Jai Mrug from leading independent pollster VMR.

“While the minimum income scheme does look very appealing, it is unlikely to have a real wow factor with the masses,” Mr Mrug told The Independent. He said people simply won’t believe in promises of such a big payout – a minimum wage of Rs 72,000 (£800) to the poorest 20 per cent of households in the country. “It won’t be a game-changer because of the lack of credibility in Indian politics,” he said.

The BJP was seen as likely to lose its majority in polling just a couple of months ago, but an interim budget full of handouts and a nationalist reaction to clashes with Pakistan in February have seen Mr Modi’s party surge ahead. The latest poll for VMR gave the BJP a healthy cushion of 283 seats out of 543 in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament.

Styling himself as India’s “chowkidar” (watchman), vowing a “jaw-breaking” response to alleged Pakistan-fomented terror and announcing the launch of a new anti-satellite missile, Mr Modi has done everything in his power to make national security the main election talking point.

And it is working, said Mr Mrug. “Our latest polling shows national security is now up there as one of the key issues, just behind jobs and unemployment,” he said.

Sure enough, the BJP reserved its fiercest criticism for Congress’s pledge to review the Special Powers Act in disputed Kashmir, “to balance the requirements of security and the protection of human rights” amid accusations of widespread excesses by the Indian security forces.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley, who also heads the BJP’s election publicity committee, said: “Some of the ideas in the Congress manifesto are positively dangerous and they will result in the Balkanisation of India.”

Ajay Mehra, a former political scientist at Delhi University, said Congress’s “moderate” manifesto looked good on paper, but came too little too late for the party to counter the BJP’s right-wing pro-Hindu – and critics say anti-minority – agenda.

The manifesto might strike a progressive tone, he said, but Congress has “veered to the right” since Mr Modi beat them to the 2014 election in a shock landslide.

“Congress has not been able to mount an effective criticism of the (cow vigilante) lynching promoted by the BJP. It has not taken a very strong stand for the protection of minorities. It has also not taken a clear stand on Ayodhya and Ram Mandir (the plan to build a temple to the Hindu Lord Ram).

“The manifesto now is all goody-goody, but by its silence and by some of its statements, in the past five years the party has certainly moved rightwards,” he said.

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Mr Mehra said that the only realistic prospect of unseating Mr Modi would be if the BJP falls short of a majority and a host of opposition parties, including Congress, can strike a deal for a broad-church alliance.

Would-be coalition partners would probably ask Mr Gandhi not be put forward to lead the country, he said, making “the likelihood of him becoming prime minister very weak”.

“Rahul Gandhi has been speaking confidently and avoiding making any controversial statements, but even if the BJP declines and Congress can make up some of the deficit, the other parties have made it very clear that they will not support [Mr Gandhi] as prime minister,” he said.

With so little time to go until polls open and the country is fully in election mode, the choice for voters is clearly being framed as either for or against another five years of Mr Modi. The vision for a future without the BJP at the helm might be more progressive, but it is also a lot less clear.

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