As momentum to the 15th Lok Sabha elections builds up, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by cynicism. Informed sources say that it will cost around Rs20 crore for a serious candidate. Assume three serious contenders for each seat or a round figure of Rs50 crore per Lok Sabha constituency, the national bill comes to about Rs25,000 crore. With all this money being disbursed in a concentrated burst of two-three weeks, the elections promise to do much more for jump-starting the economy than any monetary or fiscal stimulus plan.
There’s an old aphorism—“Anything that can be said of India, the opposite is also true”. Many Indians see our political system as rotten, broken and getting worse—and the account above would certainly justify that view. But there are millions who see the glass as half-full: Our state is accountable, our democracy is a remarkable exercise in adult franchise, and our political process is getting better.
Don’t hold your breath for this debate to end. But it’s this very debate that is improving the overall system, like a self-correcting feedback loop. The process of change in a democracy creeps up on its people, almost like the invisible hand of the market finds coherence in apparent chaos.
One example of the half-full/half-empty dispute—campaign manifestos. Most candidates standing for elections wouldn’t know a word of what’s in their own party manifesto. But they are useful documents and can help to hold parties accountable if they get to run the government.
Changes in campaign promises and manifestos can highlight changing national sentiments. Indira Gandhi’s famous “Roti, kapda, makaan” (bread, cloth, house) promise was a trailblazer in the early 1970s. Similarly, the more recent “bijli, sadak, pani” (power, roads, water) promise of the Bahujan Samaj Party became so evocative that it was adopted by most parties. Over three decades, the distance between these two political views highlights the change in the role of the Indian state: from “provider” to “enabler”, from being big brother in our lives to becoming the supporting actor in the story of our lives that we must each script.
Two major parties have released their manifestos: the Communist Party of India (Marxist), or CPM, and the Indian National Congress. These are available at cpim.org/manifesto.pdf and www.aicc.org.in/new/manifesto.doc. A confession: I had made up my mind to write a cynical piece on manifestos. So, I began reading 2009’s manifestos with a critical eye, seeking only inconsistencies and half-truths. But as I read the documents, I couldn’t help being reminded of the enormous challenges in running our country, as well as the magical possibility of India.
For anyone interested in public change, a manifesto is a great starting point to understand the full canvas of national issues, and the relative importance of one’s pet peeve (environment, women’s rights, education, you name it, it’s all there).
A manifesto clarifies the positions of a party. You can often find yourself agreeing with some views of a party while disagreeing with others. For example, the CPM manifesto makes a commitment to pass a law that prevents criminals from contesting elections.
Similarly, the Congress manifesto makes an important commitment to police reforms. The National Police Commission suggested reforms in 1977, a Supreme Court ruling in 2006 mandated their implementation, but there has been little political will to take action so far.
Manifestos are also informative because of what’s missing. The Congress manifesto says that “regulations will be made to ensure good corporate governance, ethical business practices and accountability to all stakeholders.”
No question, the bar for corporate governance needs to be high. But what about political parties themselves? Not one political party has made any commitment to improving the functioning of their own party.
There’s an old Greek saying, “Who will guard the guards?” In 1999, a Law Commission report on electoral reforms stated, “Whether by design or by omission, our Constitution does not provide for the constitution and working of political parties.” So, we are going to need new laws. Unfortunately, the same politicians whose work is to be governed are the ones who need to set the rules. Imagine the kind of market regulator we would have got if the corporate sector were to establish the Securities and Exchange Board of India.
We need external pressure to get change, and shouldn’t expect much from our political parties. But it’s the height of hypocrisy for parties to cry hoarse about corporate accountability, when they run scot-free themselves. Even if legislation takes time, nothing stops a committed party from voluntarily setting a standard in political accountability in its manifesto. If not, the next time a political leader—even if it’s the prime minister—chastises the corporate sector, it could gently be suggested that true leadership comes from fixing one’s own house first. Manifestos can sometimes bite the hands that write them. For this reason alone, they could be the half-full facets of Indian politics.
Ramesh Ramanathan is co-founder, Janaagraha. Möbius Strip, much like its mathematical origins, blurs boundaries. It is about the continuum between the state, market and our society. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org