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By Inderjit Badhwar

I rarely read party election manifestos. Not because I don’t want to, but because after the first two paras they put you to sleep. They are repetitive, non-specific, boring, prolix and lack verisimilitude. Hence, y-a-w-n. But the Congress party election 2019 manifesto entitled, “Congress Will Deliver” actually woke me up. Mainly because it is rooted in current reality and presents a road map from which all political groupings in this country could benefit.

Forget whether or not the Congress will return to power and implement its promises. What is important is that its think tank has produced a blueprint for constitutional, economic, political, administrative and social refor as I have never seen before. It was as if India’s Founding Fathers, having watched the country evolve since 1947, had gathered once again in a Constituent Assembly, and made experience-based recommendations for changes to keep pace with emerging needs and fix past errors of omission and commission committed against the idea of India by all previous governments which ruled from Delhi.

It is a transformative document which does a remarkable balancing act of promoting greater state involvement in alleviating poverty, providing jobs and education, and enhancing welfare schemes while simultaneously encouraging more decentralisation, individual liberties, transparency, federalism and freedom from government meddling in private lives and entrepreneurship. Encompassing all aspects of Indian life, it has brought the national debate back to the grassroots business of fixing your country rather than fixing your enemies.

It has provoked fierce condemnation from Congress’s political rivals who have called it “a pack of lies”, “dangerously subversive” and even a blueprint for the “Balkanisation of India”. It has, nonetheless, given the Congress a new liberal identity of its own after a long period waffling and soul-searching. The document neither pulls punches, nor does it equivocate. Significantly, on economic matters, it makes a compelling break with the past in advocating a special budget aimed at the agricultural sector much in the way that the Railways has a budget of their own.

Some of the most eye-catching promises that make this a manifesto with a difference include:

“Congress will guarantee artistic freedom. Artists and craftsmen will enjoy the freedom to express their views in any form without fear of censorship or retribution. Attempts by vigilante groups to censor or intimidate artists will be viewed seriously and action against them will be taken according to the law.”

“Appointments to the Lokpal will be made in accordance with the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act, 2013. The Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and, in the absence of such a leader, the leader of the largest Opposition Party will be a full-fledged member of the selection committee.”

“Congress promises to take strong action with respect to crimes against women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and minorities. The law will be applied on the perpetrators without fear or favour. They will not be allowed to walk on the streets with a sense of impunity.”

“Congress has stood witness to the developments in Jammu & Kashmir since the Instrument of Accession was signed on 26 October 1947. Congress affirms that the whole of Jammu & Kashmir is part of India. We also acknowledge the unique history of the State and the unique circumstances under which the State acceded to India that led to the inclusion of Article 370 in the Constitution of India. Nothing will be done or allowed to change the Constitutional position.”

See what I mean?

For readers of our magazine, I will quote from sections concerning reforms in the judiciary as well as the legal and law and order machinery:

  • Congress promises that the independence and integrity of the judiciary will be maintained and protected at all costs. Congress will introduce a Bill to amend the Constitution to make the Supreme Court a Constitutional Court that will hear and decide cases involving the interpretation of the Constitution and other cases of legal significance or national importance.
  • Congress will introduce a Bill to amend the Constitution to establish a Court of Appeal between the High Courts and the Supreme Court, to hear appeals from judgments and orders of High Courts. The Court of Appeal will sit in multiple Benches of 3 judges each in 6 locations.
  • Enhance representation at all levels of the judiciary for women, SC, ST, OBC, minorities and other under-represented sections of society. We will allocate sufficient funds annually to provide the necessary infrastructure for the judiciary.
  • Congress promises to fix the retirement age of judges of High Courts and the Supreme Court at 65 years. The retirement age for judicial members in Commissions and Tribunals shall also be 65 years. This will prevent post-retirement assignments for serving judges and allow more opportunities for qualified persons to serve as judges or judicial members.
  • Congress will work with the judiciary to improve the administration of courts by introducing modern technology and appointing professionals for court and roster management.
  • We will encourage the judiciary at all levels to adopt technological tools to track cases and expedite the hearing and decisions on cases.
  • Learned, independent and upright judges are the core of the judiciary. Congress promises to establish a National Judicial Commission (NJC) that will be responsible for selection of judges for appointment to High Courts and the Supreme Court. The NJC will be comprised of judges, jurists and parliamentarians and will be serviced by a secretariat. Names of suitable candidates will be placed in the public domain and the reasons for selection will be published to ensure that the entire process is transparent. Once the new system is in place, we will endeavour to fill every vacancy in the High Courts or Supreme Court within 2 months.
  • Congress will establish, by law, an independent Judicial Complaints Commission to investigate complaints of misconduct against judges and recommend suitable action to Parliament.
  • Freedom is the hallmark of our open and democratic Republic. The purpose of law is regulation in order to strengthen freedom. Laws must be just and reasonable and reflect our Constitutional values. Congress believes that we are an over-legislated and over-regulated country. Laws, rules and regulations have proliferated and restricted freedoms. Consequently, there are severe restrictions on innovation, enterprise and experimentation, and economic growth has suffered.
  • Congress will initiate a total and comprehensive review of all laws, rules and regulations to:
  1. Repeal instruments that are outdated or unjust or unreasonably restrict the freedoms of the people; b. Amend instruments to bring them in accord with the constitutional values of a democracy; and c. Codify and reduce the number of instruments that must be complied with by a citizen.
  • Specifically, Congress promises to: a. Decriminalise laws that are essentially directed against civil violations and can be subjected to civil penalties; b. Omit Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code and make “defamation” a civil offence; c.. Omit Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (that defines the offence of “sedition”) that has been misused and, in any event, has become redundant because of subsequent laws; d. Amend the laws that allow for detention without trial in order to bring them in accord with the spirit, and not just the letter, of the Constitution as well as International Human Rights Conventions; e. Pass a law titled the Prevention of Torture Act to prohibit the use of third-degree methods during custody or interrogation and punish cases of torture, brutality or other police excesses.
  • Amend the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 in order 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.
  • Amend the laws to declare that every investigation agency that has the power to search, seize, attach, summon, interrogate and arrest will be subject to the restrictions imposed on the police by the Constitution, the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Indian Evidence Act.
  • Amend the Code of Criminal Procedure and related laws to affirm the principle that “bail is the rule and jail is the exception”.
  • At the administrative level, Congress promises to: a. Release immediately all remand and under trial prisoners facing charges punishable with imprisonment of 3 years or less who have spent 3 months in prison; b. Release immediately all remand and under trial prisoners facing charges punishable with imprisonment of 3 to 7 years who have spent 6 months in prison; c. Institute comprehensive prison reforms recognizing the principle that prisoners enjoy human and legal rights and that prisons are institutions of correction.
  • Congress will initiate a comprehensive review of all laws, rules and regulations to repeal instruments that are outdated or unjust or unreasonably restrict the freedoms of the people.
  • The greatest challenge to free and fair elections is the Election Commission’s inability to prevent the use of black money in election campaigns and the use of inducements to influence voters. We will take steps to curb and eliminate this menace. We will scrap the opaque Electoral Bond Scheme that was designed to favour the ruling party.
  • Congress promises to set up a National Election Fund to which any person may make a contribution. Funds will be allocated at the time of elections to recognised political parties in accordance with criteria laid down by law.
  • Congress will ensure that EVMs and VVPATs are tamper-proof. During counting, the count in at least 50 percent of the EVMs will be matched against the physical count of the voting slips in the corresponding VVPATs.
  • We will allocate substantially more free airtime on All India Radio and Doordarshan at the time of elections to recognised political parties in accordance with criteria laid down by law.
  • “Police” and “Law & Order” are state subjects. Congress promises to consult state governments and reach a consensus on police reforms directed by the Supreme Court in the Prakash Singh case. Based on the consensus, Congress will pass a Model Police Act that states will be advised to adopt and enact in the state legislatures.
  • The objectives of the Model Police Act will be to make the police forces modern, technology-enabled, people-friendly and upholders of human rights and legal rights.
  • Provisions will be made in the Model Police Act to: a. Make the state police force accountable to an independent Police Accountability Commission as well as to give an annual report to the state legislature.
  • Decentralise the police force in the state and involve the community in the oversight of the police force.
  • Cause investigations into cases of communal riots, lynchings and gang rapes by a special wing of the state police under the direct command of the state headquarters of the police.
  • Congress promises to work with state governments to augment the size of their police forces, to fill current vacancies within 18 months and to lay down a schedule for annual recruitment, taking into account anticipated vacancies.
  • We will work with state governments to ensure that their police forces reflect the diversity of the population of the state and gives greater representation to under-represented sections.
  • We will ensure that state police forces reserve 33 percent of all vacancies in direct recruitment and promotion for women constables and officers.
  • In recent times, sections of the media have abused or surrendered their freedom. Nevertheless, we believe that self-regulation is the best way to correct the abuse of media freedom. Congress promises to amend the Press Council of India Act, 1978 to strengthen the system of self-regulation, protect the freedom of journalists, uphold editorial independence and guard against government interference.
  • Congress will amend the Press Council of India Act to empower the Council to deal with the menace of fake news and paid news. We will work with the Press Council of India and associations of newspapers and media to formulate and enforce a Code of Conduct on reporting in situations of natural disaster, communal conflict, riots, terrorist attacks and war in order to ensure a balance between the need to inform, need for restraint, maintenance of law and order and interest of national security.
  • Congress will pass a law to curb monopolies in the media, cross-ownership of different segments of the media and control of the media by other business organisations. Congress will refer cases of suspected monopolies to the Competition Commission of India.
  • Congress promises to pass a law to preserve the freedom of the Internet and to prevent arbitrary and frequent shutdowns of the Internet. We will work with state governments to formulate rules to require the police to extend protection to journalists working in conflict areas or investigating matters of public interest and to journalists whose lives are threatened or otherwise in danger.
  • Congress promises to amend the Cinematograph Act, 1927 to restrict censorship of films on grounds of national security and obscenity. We will direct the Central Board of Film Certification to certify films according to transparent and reasonable criteria.

All in all, a breath of fresh air. A 55-page document, aesthetically designed and presented. Worth a read, if only to know what’s wrong with the country.

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