Against the backdrop of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections, convener of the Congress’ manifesto committee and the head of the AICC research department, Rajya Sabha MP RAJIV GOWDA, emerges as an important cog in his party’s war machine.
In an interview with SREEPARNA CHAKRABARTY, he talks about the novel process of holding consultations with stakeholders and people in the manifesto-making process as well as how the document will address the ‘path-breaking’ poll promise of Minimum Income Guarantee announced by Congress president Rahul Gandhi recently.
The Congress Party has embarked on a very unique manifesto-drafting process this time by holding widespread consultations with stakeholders. What has been your experience like?
It has been a fantastic process. As convener of the manifesto committee, I have been involved in ensuring that consultations are held across the country. As a matter of fact, we are now having a two-day consultation with the NRI community in Dubai. NRIs are also Indian voters and an important group of people for whom the Congress had already once created the ministry of overseas affairs. Sam Pitroda and I will attend it.
Across the country, till now we have had 173 manifesto consultations. About 120 have been public and the rest closed-door, expert consultations.
The feedback, participation and response has been very heart-warming. People from various backgrounds were very happy that the Congress was doing such a sincere and committed job of listening to people. We told everyone that give us your inputs and suggestions and we will see how it can fit in with the Congress’ vision and the one thing we can assure you is that we are listening and we’re going to discuss your inputs. So that much we have done.
Believe me, the material is still pouring in. Material has been sent to the Congress president’s office, which has been in turn sent to us — the manifesto committee. There has been tremendous engagement with tens of thousands of inputs in multiple languages on our website. We have also received 44 petitions on change.org with about 1,60,000 signatures.
There is a lot of material to digest and the AICC research department has done a fantastic job of distilling all the suggestions and ideas. Now the process of drafting the manifesto is happening under former finance minister P. Chidambaram’s leadership. We will see what all emerges at the end of the process.
How hands-on has the Congress president been in the process?
The Congress president has taken a very keen interest. In fact, the consultation process was triggered by his desire to ensure that the people of India engage with us.
Even the NRI consultation is something that he announced on his last visit to the Gulf. He has agreed to come for some more manifesto consultations.
Mr Gandhi has also launched a programme called “Apni Baat Rahul Ke Saath” where he has been meeting with youngsters and small businessmen. So these are his ways of getting inputs in different formats. Again, this is all to ensure that we are listening to the people and that the manifesto reflects that.
Will you be presenting the draft at the Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting on February 28 in Ahmedabad?
We had planned to have a draft ready by February 28 and we are working towards that. Whether that draft will be presented before the CWC is not something that I am not aware of. I don’t know what all agendas the CWC meeting has or whether our chairman, Mr Chidambaram, has been told to submit a draft on that day.
There have been talks of the Opposition uniting against the BJP and a Common Minimum Programme (CMP) being drafted before the polls?
Right now we are working on the draft of our own manifesto and then, if our party leadership responds by asking us to also draft the CMP, we will certainly take the lead in doing that. All I can tell you so far is that there have been certain neutral platforms or civil society platforms where many of us who are allies have been coming together and listening to inputs from civil society organisations and various activists. So in that sense that process of consultations has already begun.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi has already announced the Minimum Income Guarantee Programme which would be part of your manifesto. Will the document also chart out the financial implications of the move?
We still haven’t finalised the draft. Mr Chidamabaram is very experienced and strongly supportive of the Minimum Income Guarantee Programme. He believes that we have the fiscal space for it. I don’t know how much of the details we can actually put out in the manifesto as it is a more succinct document. But we certainly stand committed to the path-breaking move.
What are the issues which have been flagged again and again by people whom you have met in the consultation process?
One has to do with the state of the economy — decline in job opportunities, economic growth. People are very concerned about issues related to education and health. Rural distress and farmers’ troubles come out very strongly. There was a lot of discussion on how rapidly India is urbanising and how we can make cities more productive.
The other two big issues are demonetisation and GST. I have personally held consultations with people belonging to the MSME sector in places like Bengaluru, Erode and Hosur and there was tremendous dissatisfaction with what the government has done for them.
The Pulwama attacks have brought back the discourse on the state of affairs as far as national security is concerned. Will the manifesto address this as well?
Yes. Very much. Look at the decline in the situation in Kashmir over the last few years and just compare it with the UPA’s track record in Kashmir.