Between men and manifestos
Heated debate is going on in the media about the merits and demerits of the manifestoes released by various political parties in the current poll season, particularly by the BJP and the Congress. The BJP was the last to release its manifesto on Monday, on the day the first phase of voting began while most others had done so earlier.
Why is there so much fuss about a manifesto when many voters do not read them fully or vote on the basis of them? The masses have no clue or care about these things as they still struggle to meet their both ends meet. They simply look to the election eve goodies distributed to them. The smaller parties like the RJD, AGP, JMM and others, do not bother much about their manifestoes. Telugu Desam President N.T. Rama Rao came to power based on his one page manifesto, which promised food, clothing and shelter. The BSP does not believe in manifestoes. But this does not mean there is no need as the election manifestoes are seen as promises that the political parties will strive to achieve if voted to power.
For the first time in the 2014 elections, the Election Commission has brought election manifestoes under the Model Code of Conduct. The Supreme Court stressed for this need in July 2013 while dealing with a case questioning the legality of offering freebies.
Poll manifestos more often show the moon in the mirror. The same parties without fulfilling the promises come back to the people with more promises. Though the election results are not guided by promises made in the manifestoes, the ritual continues. Also there are surveys, which show that freebees and quotas have little impact on voters. The voters often go by the local issues and also the personal appeal of the candidates.
While the national parties focus on national issues, state parties are essentially confined to local and regional issues. Therefore how can a voter make his or her choice based on these manifestoes? What will the manifestos of JD (U) or RJD or YSR Congress or TRS promise on India’s foreign policy or security issues? Can TRS ever have a stand on GDP? What opinion will these parties have on foreign policy? The AAP has popularised the idea of ‘crowd-sourcing’ manifestoes. Now the national parties too have followed this concept.
The two national parties – the Congress and the BJP have many common issues. The Congress came up with a colorful manifesto ‘Your voice, Our Pledge’ offering a 15 point agenda for social, economic and political transformation. It promises right to health, policies to lift about 800 million people into the middle class and taking the GDP growth to about 8 per cent and create 100 million jobs for the youth. It has also promised a number of measures to boost the economy, expeditious introduction of GST, simplified direct taxes code. It promises to work towards improving relations with Pakistan, help rehabilitate the Sri Lankan Tamils, work on the India – China border resolution, and for Security Council permanent membership.
A close look at the BJP’s election manifestoes from 1996, which began the era of the party bidding seriously for power at the Centre, shows a consistent pattern of fielding the core Hindutva issues, with 1999 constituting the sole exception. The language, the style, and the treatment of the issues vary but the core issues are embedded in the manifestos.
The BJP too has listed various promises including containing inflation, addressing the unemployment, bringing back the black money, E-governance and rationalization of the tax regime. The party has also promised to bring the GST tax regime while asserting that it will not allow FDI in retail. It has promised friendly relations with neighboring countries, strengthening regional forums like SAARC, engagement with global forums like BRICS and ASEAN. It welcomes persecuted Hindus to India and talks of uniform civil code and a Madarasa modernization programme. It promises women reservation bill and strict implementation of women related laws. The Marxists have to nurture Marxism and updating of the Party programme provides an opportunity to do so through its manifesto. The regional parties like the AIADMK and DMK, PMK, MDMK. DMDK focus on Sri Lankan issue. The TMC is strongly opposed to FDI. The AAP will increase tax GDP ratio, control inflation and favors pro competitive markets. It will bring right to health, pass Janlokpal bill.
Social scientists like Dipankar Gupta claim that voters in India do not vote on the basis of manifestos and that they are only for the middle classes, political parties and the media. Most continue to vote on the basis of religion, caste and creed. India is a young nation and about 100 million will vote for the first time. Countless political campaigns are already taking place to attract them vouching unprecedented growth and development in the near future.
Election manifestos play an important role in most countries. But in other mature democracies, both voters and parties take them very seriously. In the UK, the issues committed to in their manifestoes cannot be contested in the Upper House. Similarly in the US, voters grill the candidates on their manifestoes. Unfortunately, in India these manifestoes still do not have any legal sanctity. So far the belief is that if the party in power fails to implement the promises people will vote it out but that is not enough. Time has come now to make the political parties accountable for their manifesto promises instead of looking at it as a moral responsibility. IPA