As things unfolded, the Third Front became an equal
adversary and we had to factor that in
Asked by Congress president Sonia Gandhi to give up his ministerial responsibilities and return to full-time party work ahead of the polls, Jairam Ramesh has been micro-managing electoral strategy from the party’s War Room on Rakabganj Road for over a month now. As in 2004, drafting the 2009 Congress manifesto was an exercise he was deeply involved with.
Mr. Ramesh spoke to ANITA JOSHUA about the elections and his party’s prospects
How important are manifestos in a country where elections are fought on caste and communal lines?
A manifesto is a reflection of certain priorities. Agreed, elections are not won or lost on the basis of manifestos, but they constitute an important statement on behalf of a political party. It reflects the collective thinking of a party on issues. In recent elections, manifestos have been taken seriously. When V. P. Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations raised a row, he pointed out that it was in his manifesto. Similarly, when Manmohan Singh introduced economic reforms as Finance Minister in the Narasimha Rao Government, he was primarily implementing a commitment made in the 1991 Congress manifesto. So, now people do take note of it even if they do not vote because of what has been promised.
What is the focus of your 2009 manifesto?
One, that this is a national election and only a national party can govern India. And, Congress is the only national party with an all-India perspective. Two, only a united and secular India can defeat terrorism. Three, the main achievement of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance is fulfilling the promises made in the 2004 manifesto.
Contrary to what the Left is saying, we are the only political party which promised the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) in 2004. It goes back to our Guwahati resolve of 2002. Also, we are the only party to have promised the Right to Information Act in 2004. So, keeping our promises is an important plank of our campaign for this election.
Four, we have a work agenda which is an ongoing agenda. It is a mix of growth and social agenda.
On this front, the three most significant steps are 100 days of work at a real wage of Rs. 100 a day for everyone as an entitlement under the NREGA, the National Food Security Act, and comprehensive health insurance.
In an age of alliance politics, do you have to modulate the tone and tenor of your manifesto to make it acceptable to existing and prospective allies?
No, this is our statement. However, it wasn’t easy to write paragraphs on the Left parties. It was done with a heavy heart. It is easy for the Left to abuse us. We can’t be as irresponsible in our public statements. There is a certain sobriety and restraint associated with the Congress.
Since the Congress began work on the manifesto months in advance, did you have to change the focus in keeping with emerging scenarios like the Mumbai terror attack?
Not really as far as the Mumbai terror attack is concerned though P. Chidambaram as Home Minister had a more decisive impact on the manifesto than P. Chidambaram the Finance Minister. The original manifesto was focused on taking the Bharatiya Janata Party on as the principal adversary.
But, as things unfolded, the Third Front became an equal adversary and we had to factor that in.
What is the work agenda vis-À-vis the economy?
Economic revival is our priority. There is a recognition that the current and next fiscal will be tough years for economic growth.
If we cannot get growth back to seven per cent and increase it in the current and next fiscal, then we won’t have the resources for many of the programmes that we propose in the social sector.
It is with this in mind that we hope to generate a debate on subsidies so that they reach only the truly needy and poor sections of society.
Presently, there is an ‘inclusion error’ by which the haves of society benefit from subsidies and an ‘exclusion error’ as a result of which many have-nots are left out of the subsidy net.
How much of the promises you made in 2004 have been kept?
I think the Prime Minister was being his conservative self when he said 80 per cent of the work has been done. It would put it at 85 per cent.