With national elections around the corner, political parties are once again gearing up to publish their official stances on key policy issues. The year witnessed myriad promises made by political parties, both informally through speeches and formally through election manifestos.

Election manifestos function as signalling devices for contextualizing the priorities of a political party. While they have generated debate around issues such as employment and housing, they have also made frivolous promises like free distribution of cows and laptops. Earlier this year, member of Parliament Varun Gandhi admitted that manifestos often go unread. He asserted that while manifestos should play a key role in the political dialogue, they instead often morph into mere intellectual exercises. This means that a number of voters are alienated from political processes. One way to loop them back in is by making manifestos more accessible to people. With the task of writing manifestos still underway, we ask: How can manifestos be improved to bring about a better political discourse?

We analyzed the 2014 election manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC). Using examples and via a word count analysis, we suggest three key changes in how manifestos can be drafted to make for constructive debate during elections.

First, manifestos should have a healthy mix of long-term goals and short-term agendas. Currently, the long-term goals are vague. The 2014 INC manifesto mentions promotion of a “more flexible labour policy" and “greater integration with [the] global economy", but it doesn’t hint at what these lofty goals will entail. Likewise, the BJP manifesto stated that “administrative reforms will be a priority for the government" and will be “implemented through an appropriate body under the [Prime Minister’s Office] PMO", but it doesn’t tell us what these administrative reforms encompass.

Conversely, the short-term agendas are a lot more quantitative and have a roadmap for achieving them. The long-term reforms, which could carve the path for a country’s growth trajectory, require a lot more detail and nuance.

Second, there should be as much focus on the ‘how’ as on the ‘what’. A word count analysis on the two manifestos shows that interestingly, the top 10 words in both are primarily nouns. Verbs, or action-oriented words, such as ‘prevent’, ‘transform’ and ‘institute’ occur less than 10 times in the both manifestos. To elaborate, “Primary healthcare infrastructure will be strengthened…" (INC) and increased “focus on rural healthcare delivery" (BJP) are mentioned in the manifestos, but there is no direction given on how these outcomes will be attained.

Similar promises have been made for “creation of 1 crore jobs" and “setting up efficient waste and water management systems".
There should be more details on where the money for these initiatives will come from,
how the necessary permissions will be taken,
and who will be involved in translating these
projects into reality.

Finally, it is essential that political parties explicitly define the broad terms they use. There are often trade-offs in public policy due to budgetary constraints, ideological predispositions, or political salience. Terms like health, education and development are used liberally in manifestos. For example, the INC highlights a detailed action plan for healthcare and aims to “provide universal and quality healthcare for all Indians". The BJP manifesto claims that it “accords high priority to [the] health sector, which is crucial for securing the economy". In neither of these cases is the term health or healthcare defined, which leaves its intended meaning open to interpretation. The term ‘healthcare’ could imply providing more hospital beds, building more hospitals, or increasing the number of doctors on call. This missing link between idea and intervention leaves the reader with a sense of confusion on how the party’s promises are relevant for them.

Further, manifestos contain undertones of ideology. From the word count analysis, we see that the BJP manifesto is skewed towards economic factors whereas the INC manifesto is more supportive of social inclusion. With different ideological leanings, the vision of a ‘healthy India’ or an ‘educated India’ will be different for both parties. Thus, a broad list of definitions on services like education, health, law and order, and sanitation should be clearly stated upfront.

Revamping manifestos has a dual advantage. First, with interests chalked out in a structured manner, robust manifestos become more readable, thereby expanding opportunities for political parties to engage a broader voter base.

Second, improved manifestos can facilitate the move away from a status quo of armchair discussions, wherein the media and intelligentsia act as middlemen to disseminate information. In turn, informed voters can improve the quality of political discourse and bring more people into the democratic process.

In the 2014 elections, only two-thirds of the population eligible to vote cast their ballot. There is room to increase civic engagement by evolving manifestos into sharper documents, both in their outlook and in their outcomes. Then, perhaps, manifestos can be significant in the political process.

Prakhar Misra and Kadambari Shah are associates at IDFC Institute.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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