With manifestos released, the promises are out there for voters to decide
Congress was the first to announce its manifesto among the top two national parties. In the list of promises, the foremost is NYAY under which 5 crore families or the poorest 20 per cent of Indians will be guaranteed a cash transfer of Rs 72,000 annually in the bank account of a woman of the family. Giving high priority to jobs, it pledges to fill the 22 lakh vacant positions of government by March 2020. It will pass a law to prevent and punish hate crimes. It will resort to Kashmir talks without pre-conditions, with uncompromising firmness on the border but absolute fairness with the demands of the civilians in J&K. Further, it will review AFSPA as well as scrap sedition and make defamation a civil offence. It will pass a law to provide safeguards against unlawful or excessive surveillance and monitoring. Linking of Aadhaar will be voluntary but encouraged with no one excluded from government services due to non-linking. Congress has promised to scrap the opaque electoral bond scheme. Congress pledges to create manufacturing capacities in the public sector and in prequalified security-cleared private companies. It will scrap NITI Aayog and its GST 2.0 will be based on a single, moderate, standard rate of tax. It has promised guaranteed 150 days of work under MGNREGA and has called for enacting a Right to Health. Apart from farm loan waivers across India, it promises free education up to Class XII in government schools. Congress has also announced to treat air pollution as a national emergency and bring necessary measures to counter the same.
While the Congress targets the absolute poor with big, quantifiable handouts, the incumbent BJP targets a huge layer just above them by throwing some big state spending and/or loans like a rope. BJP talks big in terms of infrastructure with Rs 100 lakh crore planned in under three years — given that the current spending is close to Rs 6 lakh crore. BJP promises farm investments worth Rs 25 lakh crore over the next five years on farm/rural productivity. Farm loans of up to Rs 1 lakh will be interest-free. A planned doubling of national highways over the next five years and a huge dose of farm sector investment. On Ram Mandir, the BJP manifesto says that party will explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution and all necessary efforts to facilitate the expeditious construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. The manifesto has reiterated BJP's commitment to draft a Uniform Civil Code. On Kashmir, the manifesto underlines the abrogation of Article 370 and the party's commitment to annul Article 35A of the Constitution. Nationalism is the strongest flavour in BJP's manifesto that projects PM as the strongest and most able leader for India in the 21st century. While Rajnath Singh listed 75 milestones that India has to achieve by 2022 when the country celebrates its 75th anniversary of Independence, Modi said 2019-24 would be a time to "lay the foundation" for 2047, the 100th year of India's Independence.
Looking back on BJP's 2014 manifesto, there is a more-of-the-same flavour in Modi's to-do list. There are not enough quantifiable goals to hold the government accountable. The 2019 manifesto is also full of generalities that have an eel-like slipperiness in terms of how to measure the new goals. No doubt, BJP ended some of the UPA-era mess on coal, spectrum and banking, but they seem to be a hazy past as elections loom. BJP's manifesto presupposes that aspiration drives growth with some mild doses of empowerment in the bottom rungs of the growth ladder. This is distinct from the direct enrichment of the poorest of the poor promised by Congress's NYAY. For BJP, big numbers shout "growth" while the fine print for farmers and the poor whispers "tokenism". Unlike Congress, BJP believes in asset-spending rather than consumption-spending as its lynchpin. Neither is it clear where the 100 lakh crore of assets and 25 lakh crore of farm investments will come from as promised by BJP nor is it clear where the 3.6 lakh crore for NYAY will come from as promised by Congress (apart from raising taxes).
BJP's virtual 50-50 model of spending-driven walk-out-of-poverty sharply contrasts Congress president Rahul Gandhi's Rs 6,000-per-month helicopter drop plan to make the poorest spend for a "remonetisation"-driven growth. As for unemployment, beyond the MUDRA loans that are already on the table, the bet has shifted to the farm sector. It seems that Congress' promises gave a wake-up call to BJP to paint a rural mural.
BJP and Congress have clearly taken contrasting approaches to growth and poverty alleviation. Beyond the common-sounding words, there is a distinct divergence of strategy that makes this year's election an exciting match to watch.
BJP's electoral confidence stems probably from its assertive right-wing positions on everything from national security, patriotic appeals and hardball citizenship rules in Assam, with some targeted talk to woo the wannabe segment that rests above those who do not get two square meals a day. And hence, it squarely opposed reviewing of AFSPA, scrapping of sedition law, undermining state supervision of civilian activities, et al, all so assiduously raised by the Congress.
Demands in TMC's manifesto include a court-monitored probe for demonetisation, simplification of GST, a revival of the Planning Commission, solving the Kashmir issue and 200 days work with double pay for MGNREGA workers. AAP's campaign is focused on full statehood for Delhi and it seems to be concentrating on Delhi only, apart from a few in Haryana and Punjab, in contrast to its 400+ seats participation five years ago.
SP plans to tax the super-rich heavily to finance development projects in general and the subsidies to the poor, promising to provide a monthly pension of Rs 3,000 to women belonging to poor families. It has also proposed to impose an additional 2 per cent tax on households having property worth more than Rs 2.5 crore for redistribution. The manifesto also talks about overhauling of the primary education system and upgrading pedagogy for more job and market-oriented education, so that youth could gain employment. It has also promised to provide 100,000 new jobs every year and has promised to build playgrounds in every village and Samajwadi hostels in all prominent educational institutions. Akhilesh has demanded a full waiver of farm loans for sustainable improvement in agriculture since 90 per cent of farmers depended upon moneylenders. The manifesto also holds out promises for internal security, women empowerment, green energy, etc.
As has been the convention, SP's alliance partner BSP does not release party manifestos, but only issues an appeal to voters before every election.
India is up for a choice between bottoms up development and welfare economics of those in opposition, especially Congress, and top-down growth economics approach of BJP where the state will create infrastructure for private initiatives to make hay and grow. And, both sides are strategically silent on the resources needed to implement their visions.
(The author is a media academic. Views expressed are strictly personal)