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Congress Party Manifesto Draws a Roadmap to an India Free From Fear

A progressive, empathetic and, above all, compassionate vision for India is what is required. The Congress manifesto hits the right notes.
Congress leaders releasing the party manifesto. Photo: X/@kharge

The Congress manifesto has put forward a very clear statement of intent about the changes the party will bring in, should it come to power. The last 10 years of Bharatiya Janata Party rule, or more accurately Narendra Modi rule, have shown the ways in which laws can be subverted. The weaponisation of the investigative agencies of the Union, particularly the Enforcement Directorate, has distilled the political conversation to a fundamental issue. This issue is whether the Republic of India will continue to be a welfare state that cares for its citizens and their right to live with dignity and hope or whether the government will strip away every modicum of choice from its citizens, treating them as wayward children who need to be told what to say, what to eat and who to live with.

The government brought in a set of new criminal laws late last year without any effective discussion. These shoddily drafted laws show not only a lack of concern for citizen’s rights but a lack of concern for the legal process itself. There is a lack of clarity about the remand provisions, about the issue of bail and even the applicability of laws where the police can choose to book a person under specific laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act or the general penal code. In short, the effect of the new laws, whether intended or not, will be to bring in a degree of chaos to the functioning of the courts. We stand at a precipice as far as the rule of law is concerned. The promises made in the Congress’s manifesto lay down a clear alternative to this looming chaos.

The first promise, ‘freedom from fear’, which may have seemed unduly poetic a decade ago, resonates now as a necessary and valid assurance. The number of people who admit to not posting their thoughts on social media or those who shy away from political discussions publicly is vast. This is the state of the average, moderately privileged, middle-class citizen and may be worse in weaker sections of society. ‘Freedom from fear’ is a freedom India desperately needs. How this freedom from fear is to be achieved is the subject of the rest of the manifesto. There is a promise to bring in a comprehensive law regarding bail to prevent misuse of the power of arrest by investigative agencies, a promise to decriminalise the offence of defamation and to end “arbitrary searches, seizures and attachments, arbitrary and indiscriminate arrests, third-degree methods, prolonged custody, custodial deaths, and bulldozer justice”. These are necessary steps to reverse India’s journey towards being a police state. The current government has ignored law commission reports, like its 268th report which was issued in 2017 (in the first term of the present government), which had asked for a reformation of the law regarding bail. A comprehensive overview of criminal laws is required and it has been promised.

Also read: Congress’s Tax Trials and the Myth of Fair Elections

The media, which has been the target of so many instances of coercive action by the State, has also been promised a self-regulatory regime. There will be special protection for journalists from arbitrary arrest, search and seizure. The Broadcast Bill which seeks to bring television and OTT channels under stricter government control will be withdrawn. The Data Protection Act and the Press and Registration of Periodicals Act will be amended to ensure that individuals and organisations need not fear the government unless there is a clear violation of the law. The current trend of action against individuals, organisations and platforms for stating things unpalatable to the government will end. A crucial part of the manifesto is to take steps to end monopolies in the media. This will ensure that the news is not controlled by a couple of corporate houses.

There is also a promise to ensure VVPAT tallying with the EVM totals. This will ensure the integrity of the electoral process. India is one of the few countries in the world which has put complete faith in Electronic Voting Machines. The often cited defence of ‘unhackable’ machines is an insensible one for anybody who is even mildly acquainted with technologies. Devices may be difficult to hack but there is no device which is ‘un’hackable. This is the reason that many developed countries still use the paper ballot. EVM matching with VVPATS will put to rest concerns about the integrity of the data produced by the EVMs.

Another far-reaching promise by the Congress is to bring in a law for the welfare of gig workers and the unorganised sectors. This is a badly needed step in a high-unemployment society where regular jobs are increasingly hard to come by. In fact, the promise of ending contractualisation of regular jobs in all government and public sector jobs could prove to be a game changer for the unemployed. Not only will it ensure regular jobs it will also allow the remaining workforce to bargain for a  better deal from the private sector.

A progressive, empathetic and above all, compassionate vision for India is what is required. The Congress manifesto hits the right notes. It shows a clear vision for India and where we need to go. The more the number of citizens who become aware of it, the more the election campaign itself will be a civilised one. It will be a conversation about policies, about rights and responsibilities, rather than shrill and impertinent dialogues about history, about Hindus and Muslims, and about bizarre claims of history. The more civilised the nature of the campaign, the better for India. A change of government will bring in a number of changes, which are long awaited and will be very welcome.

Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based lawyer.

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