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Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Congress just stirred the hornet’s nest with its manifesto

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Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Congress just stirred the hornet’s nest with its manifesto

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It appears that the Congress party, by releasing a manifesto of the kind it did, has stirred the hornet’s nest. And the wasps are out there to sting the body politic with the poison of fear. The Congress party’s promises hold some promise but then it remains to see if it helps the party wrest power and more so if it walks the talk in the event.

Lok Sabha Elections 2019: Congress just stirred the hornet’s nest with its manifesto
Election manifestos by parties have hardly been a subject matter for debate in recent times. While parties across the spectrum have continued with the ritual of releasing their manifestos, they were treated as mere rituals and left to the archives. The Congress party’s manifesto, released on April 2, 2019, however, has drawn more traction than other news related to the general election this time.
It is, indeed, a suggestion that politics is taking centre-stage rather than shows on the road or in TV studios. That the Congress party’s promises, some political and some economic, are being interrogated should suggest something positive in the march to democracy.
Among the issues raised are whether Section 124-A ought to remain a statute in India, whether defamation ought to be de-criminalised and whether fiscal prudence should overwhelm measures/promises to ensure that the poorest of the poor are not left to starve and die.
Let me enter a caveat at the outset. The Congress party, having commanded political power and been in government at the centre for long years in independent India – 50 years in all – could have considered any of these measures in the past. It did not do so. And hence I will refrain from celebrating the promise now and will remain skeptical until they are carried out. Having said that, let me add that some of these issues may not have come up to the centre-stage then, but have assumed importance in the present.
Let us take Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code at the outset. This provision, in the code, was an after-thought and was added to the IPC at least a decade after the code was brought into force in 1862. When T.B. Macaulay drafted the code, in 1860, Section 124 A was not there in it. It was inserted in 1870; the law was invoked against Bal Gangadhar Tilak (in 1897 and again in 1906), jailing him for 18 months in the first instance and deportation for six years in the second occasion. Section 124 A was invoked against M.K. Gandhi too, in 1923.
Gandhi had held that the law was illegitimate and left the judge with two options; either to inflict the punishment on him as laid out in the law (imprisonment for 18 months) or quit office and join him in the struggle against such illegitimate laws. The judge sentenced Gandhi but added that he shall be happy if his decision was reversed by a higher court.
Such reversal did not happen then. However, on January 24, 1962, Justice B P Sinha, CJI, along with four other judges, redefined the scope of Section 124-A in the Kedar Nath Singh vs State of Bihar (AIR-1962-SC-0-955 ) to hold that the section can be invoked only where the words, spoken or written, have the pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order. This was held and reiterated by the Supreme Court by Justices A S Anand and K T Thomas in the Bilal Ahmed Kaloo vs State of Andhra Pradesh (AIR-1997-SC-0-3483 ): that mens rea is a necessary ingredient for prosecution under IPC Section 124-A as much as in such other Sections like 153-A and others.
And even before these important interventions by the Supreme Court, rendering 124 A a dead letter in the statutes, Justice M.C. Chagla, among the humane jurists of our times, referred to Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s conviction under the Sedition law and said: “It may be said that this conviction was a technical compliance with justice, but we are here emphatically to state that it was a flagrant denial of substantial justice....” Justice Chagla said this when he was Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court and the occasion was the unveiling of a plaque in front of the court hall where Tilak was tried and sentenced.
Justice Chagla, it may be stressed, was among those who shouted out against the emergency in a public talk and subsequently among those who saw in the foundation of the BJP (from out of the Bharathiya Jan Sangh) in July 1980 as a development that provided hope for democracy. Chagla even attended the public rally when the BJP’s formation was announced in Bombay then.
Given this, it is a bit too surprising and incongruous that the Congress party’s promise to repeal Section 124 A, in its manifesto, is held out as portending danger to the nation; those who voiced such views seem to ignore the history of violation of the law and its abuse against dissenters all the while. This, incidentally, has been the reaction against the promise to review the AFSPA.
That the AFSPA, in its present shape, was found inimical to Constitutional Democracy by Justice J.S. Verma is a fact. In other words, the campaign against AFSPA has not merely been an obsession among compulsive contrarians. Justice Verma, once again a humane jurist, had recommended in January 2013 that the act ought to be reviewed and his recommendation went into the specifics of the problem with the act in its present shape. While the Congress party could have followed up the recommendations, during almost a year it was wielding power after January 23, 2013 (when the report was submitted by Justice Verma), the present regime too could have gone into it.
And as for the other major promise – minimum wages guarantee to the poorest 20 percent of the families – the naysayers are already raising a huge scare: That there will be a steep increase in taxes if the scheme has to work. This is simply scare-mongering and even if taxes are raised, it serves the nation better by spending some of it to ensure that people do not starve to death rather than letting the bent and the beautiful enjoy grants and subsidies of many kinds.
It appears that the Congress party, by releasing a manifesto of the kind it did, has stirred the hornet’s nest. And the wasps are out there to sting the body politic with the poison of fear. Let me stress, once again, that the Congress party’s promises hold some promise but then it remains to see if it helps the party wrest power and more so if it walks the talk in the event.
It is bliss, for now, that a manifesto has provoked a debate and that is what elections ought to be like.
V Krishna Ananth teaches History at Sikkim University, Gangtok.
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