What election manifestos tell us about Indian politics

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint


A study of UPA and NDA poll promises reveals notable patterns and also helps us track the maturity of our electoral politics

In the chaotic celebration of democracy in India, ‘The government has failed its promises’ is a perennial part of the noise. Television debates, newspaper analyses and even dinner conversations carry this grudge. For opposition parties, this is typically the central hinge of their campaigns. Yet, the country’s discourse has remained informal, generic and casual, with little systematic effort to pin down the government on promises it ‘really’ made.

One can find promises in election manifestos. Research on manifestos in India, however, is rather thin. This is surprising, given the rich content they offer in terms of ideological and policy promises. These are textual promises that parties can be held accountable for. This, therefore, is a major research oversight.

Promises to keep
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Promises to keep

We undertook preliminary content analysis of the manifestos of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for four general elections from 2004 to 2019. The preliminary insights are interesting. For instance, we find that the UPA manifestos of 2004 and 2009 were almost half the size of NDA manifestos. In 2014, though, the two manifestos were almost equally voluminous, but the UPA’s document witnessed a vast expansion in 2019. NDA manifesto sizes, by contrast, have been decreasing over time, falling to an all-time low in 2019.

How many promises have these manifestos carried? To answer that, we divided the manifestos into three major sections: a) the introduction and ideological framework of the party; b) work done by the alliance in its previous tenure; and c) plan for the upcoming tenure. The ideological framework of political parties often has a separate subsection devoted to their largest political rival. For example, UPA manifestos have consistently had a separate section named, ‘Congress vs BJP’ or ‘Congress as the only choice’, for the three most recent elections; it was called ‘The BJP/NDA’s Monumental Failures’ in 2004. While NDA manifestos do not have a consistent section devoted to this, they offer a strong critique of the UPA tenures in their introductions and at the start of their plan for the upcoming tenure.

The third section on planning and promises for the upcoming tenure is more significant. Our assessment reveals that back in 2004 and 2009, the NDA devoted 80% of its manifestos to promises. This reduced steadily to 65% in 2019, when the last general elections were held. The UPA, on the other hand, had around 55% of its manifestos’ content on poll pledges, which rose to almost 75% by 2019. This indicates that parties devoted a larger share of their manifesto to planning for their next tenure when they were in opposition, compared to when in power. It may also indicate that incumbents likely to retain power will devote less of their manifestos to promises.

How many and what type of promises are these? If one simply looks at the total number of promises made in manifestos, the numbers for the UPA have remained significantly lower than those of the NDA during 2004, 2009 and 2014. In 2019, however, the UPA made 70% more promises than the NDA. This is also because the number of NDA’s promises reduced significantly in 2019.

We divided the manifesto promises into two groups, falsifiable and unfalsifiable. The former are promises that are accompanied by plans of action, specifics of governance, numeric targets and names of policies and/or statements on the time required to accomplish them. One can trace the progression of these promises objectively. For instance, “Debt is a civil liability and we will not allow criminal proceedings to be instituted against a farmer who is unable to pay his/her debt" is a falsifiable promise. Mature electorates require more of this type. The unfalsifiable ones, on the other hand, are vague and unaccompanied by a mention of any policy, plan of action or funding; they are accompanied instead by phrases like “ensure development", “promise to", “we will take all possible steps". For example, “We will speed up the purchases of outstanding defence related equipments and weapons" is a non-committal and thus unfalsifiable promise. While they may work in practice, a high share of these in manifestos is a sign of weak electoral democracy.

We find that the share of unfalsifiable and falsifiable promises is generally equal in all manifestos through the four general elections under study. Interestingly, we also note a significant rise in the share of falsifiable promises in the UPA manifestos of 2014 and 2019. This suggests the UPA may be looking to establish more transparency and accountability in governance, and thereby attract voters to appreciate a relatively specific policy-driven agenda, rather than verbose and empty promises. Their defeat in both these elections may indicate that this has had little impact on voting decisions. Even in this context, manifestos have much to reveal.

Insofar as the importance of written poll promises increases over time, and political parties assume greater power, their manifestos will become more useful as instruments, both for studying the minds of voters as well as for mapping the country’s political priorities. Global research efforts are underway to understand the political preferences of parties. For instance, the Manifesto Project, housed in the Social Science Research Center in Berlin, works on a large database of manifestos of political parties from 50 countries. India is not yet part of it. Still, over time, Indian discourse is sure to assume importance. As Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur head into pivotal elections early next year, it is important to begin looking at these documents more closely.

Yugank Goyal, Sahil Deo & Ovee Karwa are, respectively, associate professor of public policy at FLAME University, co-founder of CPC Analytics, and research assistant at CPC Analytics

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