The coming of age of party manifestoes

Party manifestoes were treated with disdain until recently, essentially looked upon as a matter of record that was not to be taken too seriously. They represented a ritual which was necessary but with little sanctity or force. In recent times with the BJP and the Congress constantly sniping at each other, each accusing the other of parroting lies and making impractical tall promises, there is a tendency to pick holes and to try to puncture the credibility of the rival as never before. This is in a sense a blessing in disguise.

With personal animosity now the norm rather than an exception, the body politic has got so corrupted and vitiated that there is never a good word for the rival, even by chance. The manifestos of the BJP and the Congress reflect this contemporary trend in India. As a Union minister said recently, 90 per cent of the speeches of Congressmen are devoid of anything but hitting at Prime Minister Narendra Modi below the belt.

Likewise, though to a lesser degree, the Nehru-Gandhi family represented by Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul and now daughter Priyanka, is the butt of BJP criticism of the Congress party. Attacks on either side are overwhelmingly personal.
It is unthinkable that either side would find anything good in the other party’s policies and programmes, so jaundiced and one-sided is the approach on both sides.

The BJP’s focus in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections is on nationalism and strong rule under a determined prime minister. The Congress emphasis is instead on inclusiveness in all its hues. The BJP security doctrine is avowedly guided by zero tolerance to terrorism. An extension of that is that it promises to provide security forces with a free hand to curb extremism and terrorism. It also promises to speed up purchase of outstanding defence related equipment and weapons. The stress is on muscle power to overawe the enemy.

In view of this outlook, the BJP is for strengthening the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) which is a bone of contention with the Congress and regional parties in Kashmir like the National Conference and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Mehbooba Mufti.

In effect, while the BJP has positioned itself as a party that is earnestly protecting the security interests of the Indian people, the Congress is being looked upon as being too soft and meek towards a recalcitrant Pakistan which foments terror by the State colluding with terrorists against India.

This could indeed prove costly for the Congress though it is slated to win it the gratitude of the minority Muslims who are a sizeable vote bank across the country. The BJP’s all-out denunciation of Article 370 and Article 35A of the Constitution, promising to abrogate and reverse these to revoke the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir in the early days of independence amounts to a reiteration of what had been promised in the 2014 manifesto too.

But this time there is an air of seriousness about the resolve regardless of what the Congress and the regional Opposition parties may threaten. This is indeed a promise that the BJP would like to honour if nothing else to emphasize that the Nehruvian policy was one of appeasement which the BJP was reversing imbued as it was with nationalism.

That this could cause major turmoil in the State is well on the cards but the BJP is in no mood to continue with the present arrangement of excluding all but the permanent residents from settling in the state.  Correspondingly, the Congress attitude towards Pakistan is also distinctly softer, pushing for durable peace with India while being less emphatic than the BJP on cessation of terror activities from across the border.

Other than national security issues, there is competitive populism at play in the manifestos of the two parties. The farmer who is numerically very strong is the focus of appeasement by both parties. The BJP manifesto promises short-term new agriculture loans up to Rs 1 lakh at zero per cent interest rate for one to five years on condition of prompt repayment of the principal amount.

It promises to make an investment of Rs 25 lakh crore to improve the productivity of the farm sector. BJP also announced pension for small and marginal farmers on reaching 60 years of age. Not to be outdone, the Congress promises to waive the outstanding farm loans and to introduce a separate ‘Kisan Budget,’ both of which are seen as counters to the BJP wooing of farmers. While an attractive deal for farmers is to be expected for populist reasons, the resources position of the Centre can hardly be ignored in taking actual decisions on ameliorating their conditions. Ultimately, populism would have to give in to the resource crunch to some degree.

A kingpin of the Congress manifesto which could influence some voters is that the poorest 20 per cent of families have been promised a guaranteed cash transfer of Rs 72,000 a year each. This sounds utopian considering the huge cost it would involve but such promises are not unexpected as a manifestation of competitive populism.

The BJP promises to bring down the percentage of families living below the poverty line to a single digit in the next five years. It says it will ensure pucca houses for families either living in kuchha houses or without access to housing by 2022. And so it goes on with little regard to how development would be sacrificed at the altar of political expediency and how investment would be an obvious casualty when populism rules the roost.

Kamlemdra Kanwar is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.

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