The Congress election manifesto for 2019, like all such promissory statements, is largely populist in nature. Having been drafted with the help of economists, it will doubtless be analysed to death by other economists. On the eve of polls, let us consider its political value and impact.
Its political value lies in the articulation of the Congress stand on national issues. It promises to repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, dilute the law on sedition, de-criminalise defamation, ramp up data privacy and pass the Women’s Reservation Bill.
In effect, the Congress reclaims its traditional centre-left position on the political spectrum. The overall impact on voters is likely to be positive, albeit not to the extent the grand old party expects. Manifestos have proved manifestly unimplementable in the past and voters tend to see them as a political ritual, more as a set of utopian promises than a vision document.
Given that political campaigns themselves are marked by half-truths, deflection, misdirection and the occasional outright lie, only die-hard supporters expect a party to follow through with its manifesto. Even so, populist promises may feed the ‘hope’ factor — that at least a fraction of what has been promised will materialise.
Three “big ideas” can be distilled from the 55 page-manifesto. The first is the Minimum Income Support Programme (not universal basic income, as earlier promised) or NYAY, which the party estimates will cost less than 2 per cent of the GDP. Further, allocation for health and education are to increase to 3 per cent and 6 per cent of the GDP respectively, but only by 2023-24.
The question of funding these unexceptionable objectives has not been examined. Presumably to avoid alarming tax-payers, the manifesto admits that the promised cash transfer of Rs 72,000 per annum to 5 crore beneficiaries can only be implemented in phases and vaguely indicates that it will be paid for by “rationalisation of expenditure” and “new revenues”.
The state governments are expected to bear an unspecified proportion of the expenditure.There is no mention of an income cap for eligibility in the manifesto. The Congress had earlier stated that this would be Rs 12,000 per month. Nor is there any indication that it will be a “top-up” scheme, as had been claimed earlier. Any family which is selected for NYAY will receive Rs 6,000 per month, regardless of what it earns.
This raises two questions. First, the manifesto is silent the mechanism for identification of beneficiaries (poverty statistics are notoriously inadequate), merely indicating that it will outsource the exercise to “eminent economists”. Second, assured subsidies have been known to result in workers actually leaving the job market. This increases unproductivity.
The other big idea has to do with job creation. Unemployment will be tackled by filling existing government vacancies and creating more government and quasi-government posts, notably in health and education services and local self-government, with the cooperation of the states. Some lip service is paid to promoting MSMEs, but the onus of providing employment falls primarily on the state governments.
Will the states be inclined to cooperate, especially as employing lakhs of new workers will inflate their wage bill, at a time when they are already under grave financial stress? Will the centre increase allocation to the states in order to support these schemes and finally, will the new posts prove productive? The third big idea is a sweeping amendment to the Constitution, to enable the introduction of a new appellate court (to deal with appeals against judgments by the High Court). The Supreme Court will therefore deal only with constitutional matters.
This bold idea, in addition to a renewed demand for a National Judicial Commission, which has already been rejected by the apex court, throws down the gauntlet to the judiciary. The remaining “fixes” offered by the manifesto are hardly out-of-the-box. The agrarian crisis is sought to be addressed in all the standard ways: yet another avatar of publicly-administered crop insurance, repealing of the APMC Acts, farm-loan waivers, etc.
Tax is to be rationalised by having just three rates of GST – zero, standard and sin goods – a direction in which we are already headed. How it proposes to boost manufacturing from 17 to 24 per cent, restore wastelands, transform slums, boost consumption and so on, has not been explained and ends up sounding like electoral rhetoric. While the Congress must get credit for reaching out to well-known experts and putting thought and effort into coming up with its manifesto, the document raises more questions than it answers.
Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.