The Congress has embarked upon a perilous path on its way to a sort of possible way to power in Bhopal. Election surveys have not as yet indicated that the Congress will be able to ride anti-incumbency sentiments accumulated over 15 years to seize the reins of government in Madhya Pradesh, even though the possibility is not being counted as being remote either.
To be able to do so, the Congress needed to get some simple things right. It failed. Now, unfortunately, it has plumped for some of the more complex things and it's getting them wrong. Let's begin with the main thing it failed to do right — alliances. The party had intended to finalise pre-election alliances principally with Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), but also with the Samajwadi Party and the Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP). It failed on all fronts. After some listless negotiations, Mayawati decided to go solo, while the Samajwadi Party and GGP settled on an alliance excluding the Congress, accusing it of being too dilatory. All the Congress managed was a largely inconsequential tie-up with the Sharad Yadav wing of the Janata Dal (United) — the Loktantrik Janata Dal — for which it has set aside one seat.
An alliance with the BSP alone would have exponentially increased the Congress' chances of unseating three-time BJP chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. Having failed, mostly because the party still seems sometimes to live in earlier climes when the problems of making the necessary accommodations was barely felt, the Congress seems to be trying to compensate by casting its net for votes through an overly inclusive manifesto. Thus, it has combined in what it is calling its vachan patra rather than ghoshna patra — a promissory document rather than a list of announcements — elements possibly expected to pander to the majority community and the more usual mix of 'secular', material 'promises'.
Let's take the second constellation of promises first. The Congress has promised to cut farmers' electricity bills by half as also reduce LPG, petrol and diesel prices. It has also promised to waive agricultural loans taken from all types of state-run cooperative banks. Thus far, the Congress has kept in mind the needs of agriculturists and their widespread disenchantment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) governments at the Centre and in the state. To address the issue of unemployment and the Centre's inability to create jobs anywhere near the magnitude promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2014 election campaign and thereafter, the Congress has promised an unemployment benefit of Rs 10,000 a month for one young member of every relevant family for a period of three years.
It has promised, for good measure, an ex gratia payment of Rs 51,000 for women at the time of their marriage and of Rs 2,50,000 to the landless for the construction of a house on a plot of 450 square feet. It has also promised the abolition of the infamous Vyapam — or Vyavasayik Pariksha Mandal, the autonomous agency set up by the Chouhan government to conduct professional examinations, which is embroiled in serious irregularities and has so far claimed, directly or indirectly, an unconsciously high number of lives. The death continues to mount and is near the half-a-century mark. Until this point, the Congress seems to have addressed very real concerns arising from the mismanagement of the economy by the Modi government and the special needs of some social groups.
But then the party and its promissory document goes off script. They promise the construction of gaushalas (cow shelters), a bizarre ‘Ram Van Gaman Path’ tour to trace Rama’s footprints in Madhya Pradesh and, in an inescapably dangerous move, the setting up of a ‘religious and spiritual department’ that will organise the production of cow urine and cow-dung cakes in gaushalas.
Let's navigate our way through this set of promises. The promise that the government/state will involve itself in setting up cow shelters is from one point of view unexceptionable, though why other domesticated animals should miss out on this love for animals is an unanswerable question in terms of strictly humane motivations.
Obviously, of course, this is meant not to be a concession to concerns of animal-rights activists. It is meant to harness the electoral energy of the cow-protection movement popularised by Sangh Parivar elements and sparked off by the spate of draconian legislative amendments passed by newly-minted BJP state governments since 2014. Given the dangerous overtones of this movements — its descent into vigilantism that has claimed the lives of many Muslims — the Congress' pandering to perceived electoral compulsions is downright dangerous. Moreover, this movement is owned by the Sangh Parivar and a volte face is unlikely to drive BJP voters into the arms of the Congress. On the contrary, the Congress could have consolidated the support of the Dalit and Muslim communities who have seen their cultural, livelihood and nutritional choices come under attack by promising a return to the more liberal pre-Modi cow-protection regime.
The attempt to have the government trace the footprints of a mythological figure in an institutionalised manner is much too bizarre to contemplate. It is also unlikely to provide much electoral fodder to the party. The best that can be said of this brainwave (or brain fade) is that it might provide a spur to the tourism industry. The other initiative is fundamentally dangerous. It would be fairly innocuous if private cow shelters decided to collect (or produce, whatever that means) cow urine and make cow-dung pats to sell in the market and generate revenue. Both are useful products: One chiefly as an organic fertiliser, the other as a widely used and cheap (though polluting) fuel.
But it is not clear why the government should involve itself in such enterprises. It is all the more inexplicable why the Congress government should promise to set up a government department to organise this involvement. But, most damningly, it is inconceivable that the Congress would stray into Hindutva terrain so explicitly as to set up a ‘religious and spiritual department’ because it infringes fundamentally the constitutional mandate for the state to be secular. This was not a provision presented to the Congress as a fait accompli by the Constituent Assembly, rather the ‘secular’ part of the definition of the Indian republic was added by amendment to the Preamble in 1976 by the Indira Gandhi government.
For the Congress to now compromise so grievously on a constitutional fundamental which it has professed to hold dear for nearly half a century is unthinkable, inexplicable, egregious and wholly unacceptable, whatever the electoral compulsions it faces. This is especially true because it loses no opportunity to assail the BJP for its attacks on the constitutionally-mandated secular fabric of the nation.
Updated Date: Nov 12, 2018 11:53:31 IST