Home >politics >policy >BJP, Congress take a leaf out of AAP book on manifestos

New Delhi: In the run-up to the 2009 general election, padyatras or walks were the big trend that political parties employed to reach out to the electorate. This time, it is the election manifesto.

Ever since the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) floated the idea of crowd-sourced manifestos for each of the 70 constituencies that it was contesting in the Delhi assembly elections, national political parties have jumped onto the bandwagon, paying more attention to manifestos, and reaching out a cross-section of society for compiling them.

To date, only the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam have published their manifestos, but in the run-up to what is already one of the most bitterly fought elections in recent history, it is the process that matters more than the outcome.

The Congress party’s vice- president and putative prime ministerial choice Rahul Gandhi has launched a programme to incorporate what people want in the party’s manifesto.

“So far the manifesto had been made in closed rooms. I am trying to make it an open process. I have done many such meetings with farmers, youths, women and labourers.. Now I thought I should know what you want," Gandhi told a group of fishermen on Versova Beach, Mumbai, on 6 March.

And during the party’s last national executive meeting in Delhi in January, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Rajnath Singh told party workers to speak to people from different sections of society in their constituency and prepare a manifesto for each constituency. This is the first time the BJP has asked its party workers to prepare a manifesto for each of the 543 parliamentary constituencies in India.

Last month, the Election Commission of India (EC), the autonomous body that oversees polls, provided a formal twist to this process when it, for the first time, brought manifestos within the ambit of the model code of conduct, effectively laying down guidelines that political parties can’t breach.

The commission left no room for ambiguity in its intent in its order that seeks to clamp down on impractical and populist promises.

“In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled," the EC order said.

Most political parties were opposed to manifestos coming under the code of conduct, but last July, the Supreme Court directed the Election Commission to come up with guidelines to ensure a “level playing field".

If the need to engage with voters encouraged parties to democratize the process of creating manifestos, then the commission’s diktat ensures transparency.

Together, the two are making manifestos more relevant than they have been in recent years.

Suhas Palshikar, co-director of Lokniti, a research programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, and professor in the department of politics and public administration at the University of Pune, said, “Ordinarily, manifestos have had only a cosmetic value in elections. Parties do not use the manifesto nor do they popularize ideas contained therein. Media—electronic media in particular—never deems it fit to discuss manifestos seriously and at length. Therefore, the campaign value of the manifestos has always been very low."

A beginning

Like it did on so many other fronts, the AAP proposed the innovative idea of manifestos for each constituency, acknowledging the local concerns of constituents. By seeking their inputs, it made their concerns its message, thereby ensuring support for itself.

In the run-up to the general election, given the paucity of time—unlike in the Delhi polls, where the party had a year’s head-start—it has put the grassroots approach on hold and also dropped the idea of a compulsory individual manifesto for each constituency.

“We have taken a lot of inputs from several groups working on the ground, many of which have joined the party," said Atishi Marlena, who is overseeing the creation of the party’s manifesto. She added that the party’s focus has always been on what it has “got from the people".

The party, which has consulted farmers, representatives of Dalit groups, and workers in the unorganized sector among others, is expected to release its manifesto later this month.

It is possible to have specific manifestos for each constituency, just like the party did in the assembly election in Delhi, Marlena added.

Palshikar pointed out that the two circumstances are different.

“AAP used the idea of constituency-specific manifesto because it was assembly election, constituencies were small and the constituents much more literate than elsewhere."

Congress takes the cue

Ironically, the Congress party, which was decimated by the AAP in the just concluded Delhi assembly election, has taken the cue.

Beginning in Bhopal, Gandhi has held meetings across the country ahead of his party drafting the manifesto—together with the simple message, “your voice, our pledge".

He has met women, tribals, ex-Army men, labour and trade union leaders, street vendors, railway porters, sportsmen, representatives of rural and urban local bodies, workers in government-run child- and mother-care centres, stone mine workers in Rajasthan and salt workers in Gujarat.

The interactions have been telecast by some channels and webcast by the Congress, whose spin-masters have sought to communicate that Gandhi’s comfort in such settings, as opposed to his unimpressive public speeches, is an indication of his desire and commitment to work at the grassroots level.

The BJP’s plan

Even the BJP, the country’s principal opposition party has taken a leaf out of the AAP’s book, with a difference. In the past, a group of leaders would discuss and determine the content of the manifesto. Now, the leaders are visiting important cities and state capitals to meet people representing various groups. The leaders are expected to include suggestions proposed in these meetings when they get together to finalize the manifesto.

In keeping with its broader economic agenda, the BJP has told these leaders to focus on ideas boosting the agriculture and manufacturing sectors and enhancing the role of the private sector in the economy. Senior leaders in the party are of the view that the manifesto should clearly spell out the BJP’s stand on increasing foreign direct investment in infrastructure projects, cold chains and defence production—the last, given the party’s interest in seeking private and foreign participation in setting up defence production facilities in the country instead of relying on importing defence equipment.

During their interactions with farmers across the country, the leaders have promised the creation of seed banks, easy access to credit, and pledged that cultivable land will not be allowed to be used for industrial purposes.

The party has asked former Union minister Jual Oram to visit all the tribal areas in the country and prepare a detailed plan for the upliftment of tribals. “The suggestions coming from tribals is mainly about employment generation, education and health facilities," said Oram.

The behaviour of the three parties shows that the way political parties are approaching manifestos ahead of the coming election is different but “for voters, manifestos would not make much sense until actual policies, programmes and performance of parties are strongly related to manifestos," said Palshikar.

Right now, they are “only platitudes", he added.

Yes, but at least they are platitudes partly scripted by the people themselves.

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