Call it the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) effect or the restlessness of the electorate, political parties are scrambling to involve people in drafting their manifestos for the upcoming general elections. In the past too, many civil society groups have led extensive campaigns for their issues to be included in the manifestos, but without much success. This time around, the parties are not only much more receptive but are even engaging such groups proactively.
Political parties argue that the trend was inevitable. They need to address the expectations of a restive young population, they say. Analysts see it as victory of people who have been
campaigning for a similar space. The task of drafting the manifesto, invariably assigned to a close group of party leaders earlier, has suddenly become a critical part of the parties’ campaign strategy. It now straddles virtual as well as traditional spaces. The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for instance, have adopted a new and extensive system to crowd-source their manifestos. Whether it is the spectacle of top party leaders holding discussions with targeted vote-bank or the novel mechanism to seek web-based feedback, manifesto drafting committees have become the most happening component of the campaign.
Rajendra Prasad Gupta, member of the core committee to draft BJP’s manifesto, admits the difference between 2009 and 2014. ‘In 2009, we did not brainstorm like we do now. We have tried to reach every group and accommodate its view. The effort is much broader than in the past,’ says Gupta. ‘This time, our consultations are extensive due to the large presence of social media and aware citizen groups. We are using an exclusive website apart from the social media to seek people’s view. This is besides obtaining feedback from various professional bodies, industry associations, students, farmers and NRIs,’ he says. In a first, during the BJP’s national executive meeting in Delhi in January, party president Rajnath Singh asked the cadre to involve people in drafting a
manifesto for each of the 543 parliamentary constituencies.
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi personally supervises people’s involvement in drafting party’s manifesto. As one of his key advisers says, ‘The party has been seeking feedback for its manifesto since 2012.’ Recently, the Congress launched its manifesto drafting process as a campaign called ‘Your Voice, Our Pledge’. ‘So far, the manifesto had been prepared in closed rooms. I am trying to make it an open process,’ Gandhi told fishers on Versova Beach in Mumbai, on 6 March. Like the BJP, Congress has created a separate website to receive inputs for its manifesto. The party’s student wing has launched another website to seek focused views of the youth and students. The party has mass circulated e-mails seeking feedback. The manifesto committee has received 10,000 responses. At the state level, the party’s outreach has covered panchayats to obtain responses on its trump card welfare schemes like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Rules of the game changed with the spectacular debut of AAP in the Delhi Assembly polls late last year. Its idea of releasing a manifesto for each constituency, based on feedback of the electorate, resulted in massive outreach for the just-born party. National parties are largely adopting the AAP model for the parliamentary elections. Interestingly, AAP itself is not issuing constituency-wise manifestos due to lack of human resources. The party, however, claims that its seven-month public outreach for Delhi elections has resulted in evolving a people-led policy framework. ‘That policy document is now converted into manifesto for the general elections,’ says Aatishi Marlena, member of AAP manifesto committee. The Election Commission of India (ECI), too, has stepped in. In February, it brought manifestos within the ambit of the model code of conduct, setting clear guidelines for what can be put in it. The poll panel has debarred parties from making tall promises without laying down their ‘rationale’. The ECI order states, ‘Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.’
The new trend has cheered up groups which are seeking political commitment for their causes. ‘Civil society’s consistent efforts to make political parties sensitive to development issues have made democracy more meaningful,’ says Amitabh Behar, convener of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (keep your promise campaign), a national association of more than 600 civil society groups. The campaign, one of the largest in the world, has been leading the people’s manifesto movement since the general elections in 2004.
This year, the campaign has consulted 0.4 million people spread across 204 constituencies of 24 states in 3,724 public meetings for drafting a national people’s manifesto for the consideration of the parties. In four months, meetings were held at the village, panchayat and constituency levels to make the exercise all-inclusive. Separate meetings were held with the youth, women, Dalit groups, persons with disabilities and marginalised sections. The manifesto was given to every sitting and aspirant parliamentarian during public meetings in every constituency. It was sent to parliamentarians who did not at tend the meetings.
In early March, the manifesto was handed over to the Congress, BJP, Communist Party of India (Marxist) and AAP. ‘During the 2009 elections, national parties just acknowledged our feedback even though we could find a few of our suggestions in their manifestos. This time the response and acceptability is high,’ says Behar. There is a significant disconnect between the manifestos prepared by the civil society at the constituency level and the manifestos of political parties. ‘The people’s manifesto campaign will bridge this gap,’ he says. This time political parties agree, too. For instance, the Congress manifesto is expected to promise a brand new rural employment programme based on people’s feedback.
Also, the extensive village-level outreach will be very valuable for sensing people’s mood. In the 24 states that the people’s manifesto campaign covered, there is a strong demand for making basic entitlements like food and education universal. This means the Congress trump card of the right to food security may show result. But as A K Singh of the people’s manifesto campaign in Jharkhand says, ‘This time consultation by parties is extensive so it will be interesting to see the impact on the final manifestos.’
By arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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