Election manifestos are a tool for strategic communication by political parties with their core vote bank and the policy establishment. This was amply demonstrated by the manifesto of the Samajwadi Party, branded as regressive but directed at the support base of the party in the abjectly underdeveloped villages of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh where it hopes to strike the right chord.
There is a singular lack of clarity, however, on foreign policy and security issues in the manifestos of all the parties, which is distressing.
In a globally interconnected world, India requires a focused foreign and security policy to meet the challenges arising from core threats of state-supported non-state actors and terrorism. The “Talibanization” emanating from Pakistan superimposed on an unstable neighbourhood from Colombo to Kathmandu denotes the need for regional engagement that goes beyond the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) metaphor. Internally the Naxalites have succeeded in disturbing, if not disrupting, the election process in central India. This highlighted the amateurish security management as elections in all Naxal-affected states were planned in one go, leading to a thinning out of security forces.
Yet party manifestos scarcely give us confidence that they have thought through plans to meet the emerging challenges squarely in the years ahead. Moreover, political slandering has reduced important issues such as defence capacity building to pithy number crunching. Ironically, the same figure, Rs24,000 crore, is used by the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to blame each other for a lapse of defence funds but for different periods: in 1999-2004 by the National Democratic Alliance as per the Congress manifesto and 2004-2009 by the United Progressive Alliance as per the BJP one.
It is not surprising then that national aspirations for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council have been missed out by parties other than the Nationalist Congress Party. Saarc has been proposed as the medium for tackling regional challenges, ignoring its gross inadequacies and the unlikelihood of a summit in the near future as the Maldives has expressed its inability to hold one due to a funds crunch.
Pakistan remains the most important foreign and security policy challenge to India over the next five years. While there is intense debate in the US and Europe on the issue, our ostrich-like approach has led almost all political parties to play the familiar tune of economic relations, people-to-people contacts and restarting dialogue at an appropriate time, implying that this will be dictated by Islamabad. The other option denoted is international pressure. Clearly the need to seize the initiative by putting in place a penalty and rewards mechanism to incentivize cooperation has been missed out.
The foreign policy contours of the parties denote a Left versus Right divide, as the BJP is tilted towards the US and the West, while the Left will likely renegotiate the Indo-US nuclear deal, which seen as being against “national interest, both political and economic”. The Left will also likely rethink relations with Israel, particularly defence cooperation. The BJP is also likely to go for a fundamental change in the arms export policy with the intent of making “India a competitive player in the global market by 2020”. The BJP and the Left also plan to introduce a Constitutional amendment requiring parliamentary approval and ratification for any international treaty with a two-thirds majority.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The Congress manifesto—which is the most frugal in terms of elaborating on policies—pledges “zero-tolerance towards terrorism”. The party has also issued a separate counterterror agenda, “The Congress Party’s Pledge: Protecting India from Terror”, which is an operational doctrine rather than a document formulated by a national party. Capacity building of the police and specialist security forces, police reforms and national identity cards are a panacea to counterterrorism professed by virtually all parties.
The BJP seeks a strong law and proposes to make the terrorists “pay a heavy price for each innocent life lost.” To fight terrorism, political parties have to build consensus and confidence between communities rather than propagating an “eye for an eye” policy, or denote organizational and operational frameworks, which is the task of the government and the security forces.
The most significant divergence among parties is on the issue of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, with the BJP wanting to remove the “psychological barrier for the full integration” of the state while others want its implementation.
Defence policy guidelines for the modernization of the defence forces focused on balancing capacities to fight wars in multiple dimensions; conventional, sub-conventional and asymmetric warfare were expected, but instead, empty platitudes have been pandered as policy. One of the parties, the Janata Dal (S), has gone to the extent of identifying specific capabilities such as an airborne brigade for the Armed Forces, which is best left to military professionals. The BJP has also proposed a number of sops for the Armed Forces, such as a separate pay commission, one rank-one pension and the exemption of income tax. Some of these issues may exacerbate already strained civil-military relations—not to talk of politicization of the Armed Forces.
The internal and external challenges facing India demand a fresh approach to build a regional political and security architecture, developing on the joint working group on terrorism proposed by Bangladesh and an “iron fist in velvet gloves” policy to counter militancy and terrorism within the country.
Sadly, the manifestos fail to provide a new direction to our security and foreign policy. Unless there is a major review, we will continue to stumble through the maze of instability and disorder during the period of the 15th Lok Sabha.
Rahul K. Bhonsle is editor, South Asia Security Trends. Comment at email@example.com