Home >opinion >The BJP’s manifest desires

On Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its much-delayed manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. It reflects well what can be expected from the party and also amplifies the contradictions that await the BJP if it forms the next Union government.

The BJP makes the right noises, of course. Even a cursory reading of the document shows that unlike the Congress’s entitlement-driven outlook, the BJP believes in a better service delivery mechanism and creation of infrastructure.

The stuff worth noting

One reason for India’s recent troubles is the weakness of the Union government and the concurrent strengthening of states in political terms. Regional parties and powerful chief ministers can no longer be ignored. Crafting and implementing countrywide policies is now a dream without the cooperation of the states.

At the root, this is the reason for India’s slowing economic growth, the holding up of infrastructure projects and delay in implementation of measures such as the goods and services tax (GST). The friction between the Centre and the states may well be the reason for the country’s economic woes.

How will the BJP cope and overcome this contradiction?

The manifesto makes all the right noises. The party promises to do, among other things:

1) Place Centre-state relations on an even keel through the process of consultation and strive for harmonious Centre-state relations.

2) The government will be an enabler and facilitator in the rapid progress of states. We will evolve a model of national development, which is driven by the states.

3) Ensure fiscal autonomy of states while urging financial discipline.

4) Create ‘regional councils of states’, with common problems and concerns, with a view to seeking solutions that are applicable across a group of states.

5) The moribund forums like ‘National Development Council’ and ‘Inter-State Council’ will be revived and made into active bodies.

6) Involve the state governments in the promotion of foreign trade and commerce.

Of all these claims, the second and third are like fine music. But how will a BJP-led government implement them?

Point 2 is clearly political and requires not only a high degree of coordination between the Union government—in effect the Prime Minister—and chief ministers but a great deal of trust. Even if that stumbling block can be overcome, there is a bigger problem: the political and economic goals of the states and the Centre clash. By their very nature, state-governments led by regional parties have narrower horizons and are resistant to ideas such as GST and foreign direct investment (FDI) in different sectors. States want to be populist; the Union government wants to promote growth. The contradictions don’t end there.

Similarly, fiscal autonomy for states either requires a massive constitutional overhaul (letting states have a lion’s share of taxes) or a huge increase in fiscal transfers to states (again not strictly a discretionary matter for the Union government as such transfers are governed by the Finance Commission).

How the BJP, if it forms the government, will overcome this barrier, should be watched carefully.

The old, and watered down, stuff?

One interesting feature of the manifesto is the issues it ignores or underplays. For example, the Ram Temple finds a passing mention. Not only that, the temple is promised “within a framework of the Constitution". The Uniform Civil Code is mentioned in a similar light: The BJP “believes" in it and “reiterates" its stand on drafting the Code. But it makes no promises. Similarly, on another contentious issue, Article 370 of the Constitution that makes special provisions for Jammu and Kashmir, the manifesto reiterates the BJP’s stated position of abrogating the article but in much milder language: It promises discussions with all stakeholders instead of an outright abrogation of the article. This “dilution" was noted first during an election speech the party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi made in Jammu some months earlier.

In effect, the manifesto shows the party has tried to paint itself as a modern conservative party. By focusing on developmental and economic issues and watering down controversial matters that once defined its political stance, the BJP is trying hard to woo voters and potential post-election partners alike.

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