Election manifestos: Has the Congress ceded centre space to the BJP?

The BJP agenda abides by the logic of fiscal constraints, even as its rival looks bent on using unrestrained cash handouts.
The BJP agenda abides by the logic of fiscal constraints, even as its rival looks bent on using unrestrained cash handouts.

Summary

  • The grand old party’s electoral promises of cash handouts show a left-ward tilt, even as the ruling party’s prudent approach to welfare grants it the centre-ground in Indian politics.

Considering how Prime Minister Narendra Modi seems ready to defy anti-incumbency even after a whole decade in power, it is no surprise that his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is relying on the charisma of its most popular leader to win a third majority in Indian Parliament, elections to which begin this week. Its manifesto or sankalp patra (‘resolve letter,’ literally) comes with ‘Modi ki Guarantee’ as its theme, a sign that the party’s appeal is expected to be outshone by an aura around assurances from the PM himself. Modi, after all, has vowed to bring about bigger changes in the next five years than he made in his two terms in power so far. In contrast with this confidence, opposition parties like the Congress appear weak, listless and starved of issues that could make a real contest of history’s biggest-ever polling exercise. While skill gaps, job scarcity, inflation and other worries could form a critique of the economy’s handling, and welfare should always be under debate, the Congress has taken its manifesto, dubbed a nyay patra (justice letter), so far to the left that it has all but ceded India’s centre-ground to the BJP.

Although a challenger faced with a steep task may reckon that a radical agenda is the only game available to it, Congress promises contrast sharply with the BJP’s on fiscal realism. On poverty relief, for example, the ruling party has promised that free food for the poor will continue for another five years. This covers 810 million people and has already proven fiscally sustainable, so the party’s ability to fulfil its pledge is not in doubt. The Congress, however, has promised to transfer 1 lakh every year to a woman member of every poor household. Even if just half the free-food beneficiaries are found to qualify for being under the poverty line, this basic income scheme would cost the exchequer over 8 trillion, 16.8% of the interim budget’s entire outlay of 47.7 trillion for 2024-25. Yet, how it will be funded finds no mention in its manifesto. The Congress also dangles a legal guarantee for farm produce at minimum support prices based on the Swaminathan panel’s formula. This cost-plus method dates back to 2006, and had the party’s Manmohan Singh government deemed it worth being made a legal right, it would presumably have enacted such a law. Today, it seems like a hasty response to recent farmer protests that may burden the budget. In another example, while the BJP’s promise to extend the Centre’s 5 lakh health insurance cover to everyone aged above 70 sounds like a sensible change in eligibility, given how many of our elderly folks lack cover, the Congress’s idea of a 1 lakh annual stipend for apprentices aged below 25 is another pitch without any explanation of feasibility.

Broadly, the BJP agenda abides by the logic of fiscal constraints, even as its rival looks bent on using unrestrained cash handouts. If the Congress expenditure plan has not hit investor confidence, it is because its victory is seen as unlikely. Still, UBS, a Swiss bank, has estimated that the opposition party’s proposals could cost 2-3.3% of GDP unless other spending is slashed. On social issues, the BJP remains the rightist party it always was. On economic matters, it has more or less taken over the centre space held by the Congress whilst in power for two terms till mid-2014. The Congress has lurched to the left. A caste census for proportional quotas, posed as a great leveller, was its first big gambit. Now it’s talking about large money transfers. Very few breaths are being held to see if it’ll pay off.

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