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Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | There is a method to the manifestos

The BJP and Congress have gone by their instinctive priorities and made promises way too lofty for effective fulfilment. The framers of our Constitution would’ve felt let down by both

If eyes can be called windows to the soul, then political manifestos are glimpses into the genetic coils of political parties, early indicators of the path waiting to be charted by their leaders. With barely three days to go before India’s democratic credentials are tested through a prolonged seven-phase election, lasting more than a month, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has released its election manifesto. The BJP is the last among all the large national parties to tick this box and it might be tempting to view this perfunctory gesture as its disdain for time-tested electoral protocols. After all, manifestos are supposed to provide the ideological bedrock, the thematic foundation, for any political party’s communication with the electorate; it is the one occasion when a party spells out its policy contours, its vision for the future. Coming so close to the first day of polling—11 April —it would seem the BJP’s campaign pitch had no use for a manifesto. There are three ways of viewing this. One, the party does not seem serious about its manifesto and promises because it is making no pretence to using the document for its poll campaign. Two, in a country with low literacy rates, the party appears to see manifestos as elitist. Three, and this perhaps hews closer to the truth, the party’s campaign pitch and tenor is already synchronous with its manifesto’s content, leaving no room for dissonance or discord. But the ultimate test of any manifesto is how it measures up against competition, or competing ideas, on development and democracy. This compels us to compare it with the Congress party’s manifesto: BJP’s Sankalp Patra versus Congress Will Deliver.

Two economic issues—farm distress and joblessness—stand out as central issues in this election, but the BJP manifesto’s opening chapter is instead about national security and terrorism, an indication of the saffron party’s defensive priorities this poll season. Unfortunately, manifestos in India have become electioneering pamphlets rather than meaningful policy documents: Both focus on making grandiose statements without mapping out the concrete policy contours, though the Congress manifesto is marginally better on this count. The BJP does reiterate its 2017 promise of doubling farmer incomes by 2022, but its manifesto is silent on how the agricultural sector will achieve 14% annual growth, which is necessary for agri-incomes to double by 2022, or make up for lost opportunities over the past two years. There is no persuasive promise to tackle the persistent menace of middlemen who distort agri markets and pricing. BJP’s Sankalp Patra is also unconvincing about the need to generate more jobs, especially via conventional manufacturing and services. The Congress manifesto does make some meaningful promises, with measures to address the ongoing farm crisis and create jobs finding a central platform. Both parties are also looking to use social safety nets with a variety of promises, though there is one big difference: BJP’s promises seem to resonate with the new-found fiscal sensitivities of the Indian middle class. The Congress, on the other hand, seems to be rediscovering its socialist legacy, though it does make half-hearted attempts to tack closer to fiscal prudence.

On balance, one common picture emerges: Both documents are platforms for parties to showcase their respective leaders in a sort of personality contest, reducing multi-cornered Indian elections to a presidential format. This was never the original intent of those who framed India’s Constitution.

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