NEW DELHI: India’s Congress party announced its election manifesto here on Tuesday, which revealed an indirect connect with Pakistan through the Saarc template.
The party appeared contrite on Kashmir, making particular references to human rights and anti-torture steps.
The manifesto drew instant criticism from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which described it as appeasement of terrorists and separatists.
The promise of quietly positive turn of events between the neighbours hinges on the party supplanting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rightwing government in the April-May elections.
The Congress offered clear hopes of working with Saarc to improve regional ties, something the Modi government was averse to. “Congress will work with Saarc and Asean countries to enhance the volume of trade, investments, tourism and cultural exchanges and reap the benefits of geographical proximity,” the party manifesto released by Congress president Rahul Gandhi says.
The tone of commitments on sensitive issues – military budgets, terrorism, Pakistan and Kashmir – looked tempered by a necessity to not yield the nationalist space to Mr Modi.
The Congress would initiate a comprehensive review to repeal laws that are outdated or unreasonably restrict the freedoms of the people.
It would omit Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code that defines the offence of ‘sedition’ “that has been misused…”
It would deter detention without trial to bring the new laws “in accord with the spirit, and not just the letter, of the Constitution as well as International Human Rights Conventions.”
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said: “The Congress manifesto has made deshdrohi (traitor) and algavwadi (separatist) people happy. It is unfortunate for the country that on one side Prime Minister Narendra Modi is giving a befitting reply to Pakistan’s terror attacks with surgical and air strikes. On the other hand, the Congress president (Rahul Gandhi) is refusing to accept treason as a crime.”
Of interest to Kashmiris, northeastern insurgents and leftwing activists should be a proposal to pass a law “to prohibit the use of third-degree methods during custody or interrogation and punish cases of torture, brutality or other police excesses.”
The Congress would amend the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) that gives impunity to security forces in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast.
The amendment would seek “to strike a balance between the powers of security forces and the human rights of citizens and to remove immunity for enforced disappearance, sexual violence and torture.”
On Kashmir, the manifesto says that the Congress has long held the view that dialogue is the only way to understand the aspirations of the people of the three regions of Jammu & Kashmir and find an honourable solution to their issues.
“We will take that path.” It was purposely left ambiguous perhaps whether the “dialogue” included Pakistan.
A two-pronged approach on to restore peace in the Valley includes “uncompromising firmness on the border and ending infiltration; and secondly, absolute fairness in dealing with the demands of the people and winning their hearts and minds.”
The Congress promised to review the deployment of armed forces, with a view to move more troops to the border to stop infiltration, and reduce the presence of the army and paramilitary in the Kashmir Valley.
It would entrust more responsibility to the state police to maintain law and order.
The manifesto spent time on stressing claims of the Congress party’s military successes over Pakistan and terrorism without compromising national harmony.
“We crushed secessionist forces, healed differences, and ensured the unity and integration of our people. Congress leaders Mahatma Gandhi, Smt. Indira Gandhi, Shri Rajiv Gandhi and Shri Beant Singh made the ultimate sacrifice for India.
“On the other hand, the BJP government’s policies have been based on the whim of one man, sidelining the Ministry of External Affairs and the entire diplomatic corps. The BJP government is solely responsible for cancelling the gains made under the UPA years, the widening of fault lines, the total alienation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir, and a worsening of the security situation in that State.
Pseudo-nationalism is on the rise and the success of the armed forces is politicised. The BJP government’s political boasts have come even as the defence budget, as a percentage of GDP, has been reduced to its lowest levels in 50 years.
The Congress will once again restore the pride of our armed forces, insulate them from politics, entrust the conduct of foreign policy to professional diplomats and strengthen India’s hard power.”
Reference to Pakistan came up also in a proposal to improve the situation for the fishermen who get arrested by each other’s maritime patrols.
In his forward to the manifesto, Mr Gandhi said: “The last five years have been disastrous for the people of India. Youth have lost jobs. Farmers have lost hope.
Traders have lost business. Micro, small and medium enterprises have lost their confidence.
Women have lost a sense of security. Deprived communities have lost their traditional rights. Institutions have lost independence. The harshest blow is that our citizens have lost their faith in the words of the prime minister and his government. He has given us only grandiose promises, empty slogans, failed programmes, false statistics and an overall climate of fear, intimidation and hatred.”
The Congress would correct that.
Published in Dawn, April 3rd, 2019