It’s a season of manifestos and promises. Six days after the Congress released its manifesto titled ‘Congress Will Deliver’ for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP released its ‘Sankalp patra’ on April 8. Though voting for the first phase of elections took place on April 11 for 91 parliamentary constituencies and the second phase polling will take place on April 18 for 97 constituencies, the focus of debate in media
over the past week has been on the merits and demerits of manifestos of the two national parties. In fact, it is hard to recall so much anticipation and excitement over election manifestos as this time around, may be because perceptionally the Congress and BJP have tried to score points over each other with slew of welfare measures.
The Congress manifesto has promised basic income, welfare, social justice, jobs, and reservation for women and higher spends on education and healthcare; the BJP has promised good governance, security and prosperity for the country. Both manifestos cover a range of issues that concern ordinary voters – from jobs, farm distress, and women’s safety to development.
However, while the BJP has given top billing to national security, the Congress has placed employment and economy over national security. Both manifestos have received backlash from their respective rival parties: Congress President Rahul Gandhi said the BJP manifesto was the voice of ‘an isolated man’, besides being ‘short-sighted’ and ‘arrogant’, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi termed the Congress manifesto a ‘hypocrisy document’ which was ‘full of lies’.
Promises made in manifestos are the basis on which political parties seek votes. But do manifestos matter? And are manifesto promises fulfilled? Like broken promises, manifestos are an old political tradition in India. Often, manifestos of national parties have many common issues but they adopt different ideologies to achieve goals. Since election manifestos are essentially meant for urban elites and the chattering classes to debate and dissect, it is anybody’s guess whether ordinary voters really care about them or cast their votes on the basis of promises made.
Social scientists are of the view that in India, manifestos are essentially for the middle class, political parties and the media, while majority of common people vote on the basis of caste, religion and creed. Hence, manifestos are considered a dated political tradition with little relevance in India. However, they do play an important role in many democracies by holding political parties to account for their world view and performance of governments they form.
A 2017 study in the American Journal of Political Science for 12 countries – Canada, Germany, UK, USA, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Austria and Bulgaria – found that political parties fulfill their promises to voters to a considerable extent. In mature democracies, both political parties and voters take manifestos seriously. In India, there is no credible study to determine the correlation between promises and delivery and to evaluate whether parties take their promises seriously.
Since manifestos do not have a legal sanctity, political parties are not held accountable for their promises. But the belief is that since governments are accountable to voters, if a party-in-power does not deliver on its promises, it will be voted out of power. But that’s not the case always. A closer look at the Congress’ manifestos since the early 90s when liberalisation was unveiled reflects the party’s flexible economic ideology: ‘social left’ and ‘economic right’. The party has followed the policy of change with continuity.
Successive Congress governments, according to political analysts, have chosen to reinvent economic and social policies by avoiding confrontations and sharp divisions in a multi-cultural and pluralistic society like India. Since the 90s, the party has supported the idea of a market-controlled economy and reforms, which if properly regulated, can benefit many, including those who are at the margins of society.
On the other hand, the BJP’s manifestos since the mid-90s, when the party began bidding seriously for power at the Centre, have shown a consistent pattern of fielding the core Hindutva issues- uniform civil code, Article 370, Ram temple and now the Citizenship Bill, scrapping of Article 35(A) which empowers the J&K legislature to specify who are the state’s permanent residents and entitled to special rights over jobs, residence and property and extending the inconclusive NRC to ‘other parts of the country’.
The language, the style and treatment of issues may vary, but the core issues have always been embedded in the manifesto document. Since a manifesto is important not as much as a document to get votes on tall promises, but one which gives a direction or roadmap the party proposes for the country, the BJP manifesto does give a glimpse of the direction it wants the country to take: reshaping India as a cultural monolith.
In the last five years, the BJP has taken significant measures to advance its Hindutva agenda and, going by its manifesto, the same will continue to be pursued through a hardened nationalist approach if it retains power. However, as a vision statement, the manifesto does not appear to be expansive enough on how it will achieve its various economic and social goals.
Given that the BJP’s electoral fortunes hinge largely on Modi’s popularity and ability to garner votes for the party, it is not surprising that its manifesto centers on the prime minister, his achievements and his vision for India’s development and emergence as a global power. But if one were to judge the manifesto against the Modi government’s performance in five years, it is a galore of promises and grand goals, while it is not drastically different from the Congress manifesto when it comes to promising welfare for the poor and economic growth.
The Congress manifesto, in contrast, is strong on content and intent but, like all manifestos tend to be, falls short on details. However, it adequately addresses the concerns of women, youth, farmers, Dalits, tribals and minorities, all key groups the grand old party intends to target in this election. It is also a document of ideas with ample focus on jobs, a separate kisan budget, increasing MNREGA work days from 100 to 150 and direct mayoral elections for the creation of smart cities. NYAY, of course, is the Congress party’s biggest pro-poor alternative idea to tackle poverty.
Apart from ground-level economic and social issues, if the 2019 elections are about the idea of India, then the clash of ideologies over idea of India is clearly visible in the manifestos of the two ideologically opposite parties.
A L I Chougule is an independent Mumbai-based senior journalist.