Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi (center) and the party's former president Sonia Gandhi (left) pose with copies of their party election manifesto in New Delhi Photo: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP

The Indian National Congress, the largest opposition party in India, released its manifesto for the general elections that begin in two weeks. At stake is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to remain in power.

In 2014, Modi won a historic victory, establishing a full majority government in India for the first time in 30 years. The Congress faced one of the worst defeats in its electoral history, being reduced to a mere four seats in India’s Parliament, which has 545 seats.

The manifesto has been seen as a fairly remarkable one. Its crowd-sourcing saw a lot of public engagement. The party’s current president, Rahul Gandhi, insisted that the manifesto tries to reflect the millions of suggestions and inputs received over a two-month period.

Praveen Chakravarty, who heads the party’s big data analytics division, spoke to Asia Times on a range of issues from the manifesto. His comments clarify some points about funding for a bold new welfare scheme, as well as some controversies that have cropped up on withdrawing a contentious law that gives enormous powers and impunity to armed forces personnel in insurgency-prone areas. he also points out that a fresh petition is coming up to challenge the government’s recent bid to link the digital identity program, Aadhaar, to private businesses through an ordinance.

There has been a lot of talk about the Nyuntam Aay Yojana minimum income guarantee scheme promising Rs 72,000 (US$1,049) to every Indian. How is it different from existing welfare schemes?
This is an unconditional cash transfer program to deliver a basic minimum income to the poorest 20% of Indian families. When implemented, it will be the world’s largest such program. Unconditional cash transfer is very different from previous targeted welfare programs intended to achieve specific objectives such as nutrition, health, education etc.

A major point of discussion is where the money for such a scheme will come from.
At its peak, this program will cost 1.2-1.5% of GDP. It will require less than 5% of current total federal and state government expenditure. There is ample fiscal capacity. Also, there will be Keynesian effects on the economy due to this program, which will restart the economic engine through private consumption.

The promise to either dilute or re-frame the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has come up. Will that be feasible and will the hawks in the party or the Indian military support it?
We have said we will amend AFSPA in line with an earlier Supreme Court judgment to balance human rights and powers of special forces. Let us not forget that even the current government that espouses muscular nationalism has withdrawn AFSPA from the northeastern states of Tripura Meghalaya and Mizoram.

Praveen Chakravarty is the lead for the Congress Party’s big data analytics division. Photo: Courtesy PC

The Aadhaar unique identification number has been a very contentious issue under the Modi regime. The Congress promises to make it voluntary. Does that mean the party won’t insist on linking it with the Income Tax Department’s Permanent Account Number?
Yes, Aadhaar as we conceived it during our time was a project to empower weaker sections of society with a portable identity that will remove barriers in migration, access to banks and so on. It was always a voluntary program in letter and spirit. We will revert to the original idea of Aadhaar from its current state of coercive identity.

In his dissent judgment, Justice DY Chandrachud held that sharing of Aadhaar data with private players is wholly unconstitutional. There are interpretations that the majority judgment may have also found it unconstitutional. Where does the Congress manifesto stand on this?
Yes, we support Justice Chandrachud’s minority judgment on Aadhaar. A writ petition challenging the government’s ordinance on Aadhaar will come up on 5th April before the Supreme Court.

The Congress promises to spend a whopping 6% of GDP on education. Will this be primary, secondary or higher education? Details?
It will largely be in primary and secondary education. Over a five-year period, our goal is to help states improve their capacity dramatically to deliver high-quality, free primary and secondary education to all citizens.

The Congress promises to end media monopolies and cross holdings. How will Congress implement this?
There are established norms of the Competition Commission to determine monopoly behavior. We will ensure that media companies are also subject to the same rules and norms.

The Congress plans to start an election fund, and scrap the controversial electoral bonds. Can you elaborate on this further?
We will scrap the disgraceful electoral bond scheme that is a blemish on our democracy. It will be replaced with a transparent election fund as a step towards mixed funding of elections by the state and private sector.

How will the proposed new Planning Commission be shaped?
NITI Aayog (the National Institution for Transforming India), the institution that was supposed to replace the Planning Commission, has been an abomination and a disgrace. It is emblematic of the politicization of institutions that have eroded our democracy in the last five years. We will tear it down entirely and replace it with an institution that will function as the nodal unit for fiscal federalism in the nation. At a time when India’s states are diverging economically from each other, it is important to have an institution that will recognize this and serve to function as a nerve center for federalism tasked with ensuring economic and demographic convergence among Indian states.

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