New Delhi: The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the principal Opposition party, pinned its hopes to return to power on a raft of populist promises in its election manifesto, even as it sought to mobilize its foot soldiers by renewing its Hindutva rhetoric, by committing to build a Ram temple at Ayodhya and scrap off the controversial Ram Sethu project.
In a bid to outdo its main national rival, the Congress, and target rural voters, the BJP promised a waiver of existing farm loans and cap interest rates on new loans at 4%, subsidized foodgrain at Rs2 per kg for the poor and a farm income insurance scheme. Alongside, it appealed to populist sentiments of urban India, by promising to scrap the fringe benefit tax, rationalize employee stock option plans, offer income tax (I-T) concessions for women and senior citizens, waive taxes on incomes of the armed forces and not permit foreign direct investment in retail.
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To help revive the economy, the party has promised to lower taxes and interest rates, expedite implementation of road projects and step up public spending on infrastructure, but did not disclose how it would generate the resources to finance such spending. It has committed to implement the single Goods and Service Tax, scheduled to be launched on 1 April 2010, and cap it at between 12% and 14%.
Emphasizing national security as one of its main election planks, BJP’s prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, while releasing the manifesto on Friday, said, “The most worrisome issue before us today is national security.” Alleging that the country has “never before seen to be so helpless in the face of terror” as under the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, the BJP manifesto says India’s enemies shall not be punished till such time the Congress is in power.
However, some analysts have questioned the ability of the BJP, if elected to power, to be able to deliver on the promises, given that the Union government is strapped for resources, following an expenditure overrun together with a slump in tax revenues after the economy started slowing down abruptly in the aftermath of the global meltdown.
“They will be able to finance it only through market borrowing. So far the government has not borrowed from the central bank. If they borrow from the market, they will push up the interest rate. If they do decide to borrow from the central bank, they will push up inflation. It will be very difficult to support such a large subsidy regime,” said D.K. Srivastava, director of Madras School of Economics.
The Congress party alleged that part of the manifesto was lifted from what the Congress had put out on 24 March. “This manifesto is a reflection of the fact that they (BJP) have lost their way. They will never be in tune with India,” Congress leader and science and technology minister Kapil Sibal said.
With the elections set to kick off on 16 April, the BJP, which sets its goals as “good governance, development and security”, also offered 35kg rice or wheat at Rs2 for poor families and a stringent anti-terror law, along the lines of the now-repealed Prevention of Terrorism Act, to secure the country.
The BJP announced “food coupons” for below poverty line families, comprising nearly 25% of the total population—redeemable at public distribution systems and private outlets—to get 35kg rice or wheat every month at Rs2 per kg. To appease the armed forces, the party has assured an I-T exemption for all members of the armed forces and the paramilitary, a move it says would benefit two million people.
The party also offers 1.2 million information technology enabled jobs in rural India and education loans at 4% interest rate, additional I-T exemption of Rs50,000 for women and senior citizens, higher personal I-T ceiling for low-income categories and one million houses for the poor every year.
Just weeks after its candidate from Pilibhit, Varun Gandhi, raised the ante against minorities, the BJP manifesto emphasized its Hindutva agenda. It had, under pressure from its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), downplayed this ahead of the 2004 general election. To be sure, the party may yet give up these core issues, if the remaining allies in the NDA again express their discomfort with such a hard line.
The 48-page manifesto, which was released on the birthday of Hindu god Ram, promises to construct a Ram temple on the disputed land at Ayodhya, the site where the 16th century Babri Masjid was destroyed on 6 December 1992. The demolition led to Hindu-Muslim riots that killed nearly 3,000 people. However, riding on that wave, which polarized voters, the party rose to prominence in the early 1990s and came to power in 1998.
The BJP also promised it would not carry forward the controversial multi-million- dollar Sethusamudram Shipping canal project off the Tamil Nadu coast, which was opposed by Hindu groups saying that it would break the mythological bridge constructed by god Ram. Protection of the cow, considered as a holy animal by the Hindus, and a project to clear the “holy river Ganga” have also found place in the manifesto.
Graphics by Sandeep Bhatnagar / Mint