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Manifestos

A study in contrast

Published : Apr 24, 2019 12:30 IST

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Prime Minister  Narendra Modi releases the BJP’s manifesto for the 2019 election in New Delhi on April 8.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi releases the BJP’s manifesto for the 2019 election in New Delhi on April 8.

Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and president Rahul Gandhi display copies of their party's election manifesto for the 2019 general election in New Delhi on April 2.

Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and president Rahul Gandhi display copies of their party's election manifesto for the 2019 general election in New Delhi on April 2.

The manifesto of the CPI(M) for the 2019 general election was released at the party headquarters in New Delhi on March 28.

The manifesto of the CPI(M) for the 2019 general election was released at the party headquarters in New Delhi on March 28.

A look at the manifestos of the BJP, the Congress, the CPI(M) and the Samajwadi Party.

ALL major political parties in India,ex cept the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which has rejected the very concept as unnecessary, released their manifestos ahead of the 2019 general election. Manifestos invoke varying degrees of public attention and political discourse. Naturally, the manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have attracted greater attention over the years, and this election season is no different.

Manifestos do not make for easy reading and are often full of extraordinary promises that cannot be fulfilled. Nevertheless, they offer strong pointers to the direction that parties will take once elected, and parties do attempt to fulfil their promises, if possible.

This is a particularly important juncture in India’s history, and the manifestos of the two major national parties offer a clear contrast. The BJP’s 2019 manifesto is an attempt to continue the same strategy as in 2014, of making vainglorious and unattainable promises in order to impress. The Congress manifesto, on the other hand, is a clear change in direction—the central focus of which is clearly social justice and the creation of a truly liberal democracy. The Congress party also makes development promises, but these are more measured than the BJP’s, even if quite ambitious. The Congress manifesto is a clear continuation of the party’s rights-based framework of 2009-14. We also review, for a contrast, the manifesto of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) to see the complete spectrum of ideas and that of the Samajwadi Party to get a sense of how regional parties view national issues.

Review of BJP’s 2014 manifesto

Many of the points in the 2014 BJP manifesto are known to all because of the extensive publicity they got when the party attempted to fulfil the promises. Some of the most prominent promises were those of bringing back black money (unfulfilled); Swachh Bharat (which has resulted in toilets but without water); “smart” cities (only the names of which have been announced); “Beti bachao, beti padhao” (which has mostly been a marketing exercise); and the Ganga clean-up project (on which the Supreme Court has repeatedly reprimanded the government). Some of the BJP’s staple slogans, such as the abrogation of Article 370, the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley, the building of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, and a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), have remained mere slogans. Cow protection is about the only promise that the government has actually fulfilled.

In addition to these, there are many surprising jumla s (flippant exaggerations), such as compensating Andhra Pradesh for the Telangana bifurcation; the promise of an open and transparent government (which was belied by the fact that there has not been a single news conference held by the Prime Minister in five years); a promise not to exclude anyone in India, which was belied by the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill; a promise to eliminate manual scavenging, which the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) fulfilled without ever making a promise; eliminating untouchability (a recent survey showed that 50 per cent of the Hindi heartland practises untouchability even today); and a promise to rid India of “perpetrators or exploiters of fear” (while, in fact, BJP Ministers have garlanded and felicitated the said perpetrators of fear).

Then there are quantifiable promises that have failed. They include the promise to double education spending to 6 per cent of the gross domestic product (which has, in fact, registered a decline); build an All India Institute of Medical Sciences in each State; reform the Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMC) Act; give high priority to manufacturing (which has, in fact, declined); increase public spending on research and development (scientific output has declined); increase coal exploration and production (no significant change); increase patents (patent applications have decreased); bring down the current account deficit (CAD) by increasing exports (exports have declined, and the CAD has decreased owing to lower crude prices); use the latest agricultural technologies (farm output and yields have slowed); improve India’s international relations (relations with one of our closest neighbours, Nepal, have deteriorated drastically, China is steadily encircling India, and the United States has removed India from the General System of Preferences); and set up digital highways (only around 14,000 villages have been connected, as against claims of hundreds of thousands of villages).

Then there are the contentious claims, such as “One Rank, One Pension” (OROP), which the government claims to have fulfilled, except that the veterans are still unhappy. Perhaps the only promises the BJP has kept are that of fiscal discipline (an actual achievement, which the BJP managed by reducing revenue expenditure by about 1.2 per cent of the GDP and reducing subsidies by about 0.6 per cent of the GDP) and of building a war memorial.

BJP’s 2019 manifesto

Given such a record of (mostly) failure, what could the BJP possibly promise in 2019? The promises in the 2019 manifesto are so outlandish that one marvels at the BJP’s sheer courage in committing these to paper. It includes building 60,000 kilometres of national highways (almost double the present rate); covering 50 cities with metro networks (which reminds one of the failed “smart cities” promise); modernising 400 railway stations; operationalising 100 new airports (only seven new airports were built in 2014-18); facilitating the creation of 50,000 new start-ups (Startup India is one of the most visible failures of the Modi government); the doubling of farmer income (while in fact, it is, the rate of suicides that have increased); “pucca” houses for all; subsidised sugar at Rs.13 a kg to the poor; double the number of MBBS and specialist doctors; one medical or postgraduate medical college in every district; 200 new Kendriya Vidyalayas; increase college seats by 50 per cent (not sure what this would achieve, given that enrolment is actually down); 100 innovation zones; 500 new incubators and accelerators; 150 technology centres; 175 GW of renewable energy capacity; and so on.

It reminds one of Nitin Gadkari’s statement in a television interview about the 2014 election that the BJP had decided to promise the sky because they were not expecting to win anyway.

The BJP manifesto includes a few ridiculous promises, such as the creation of a foreign policy institute, which is odd since the Prime Minister has not bothered to make use of the Ministry of External Affairs in the last five years. There is the declaration of support for 33 per cent reservation for women, which makes you wonder why it was not done in the last five years. And after seeing the work done by the AAP in Delhi, a promise to introduce mechanised cleaning for drains. There is a repeat of the promise to clean the Ganga, after having done nothing in the past five years. Then there are the repeated failed promises from 2014, such as the abrogation of Article 370, the UCC, the Ram temple and the return of Kashmiri Pandits. This manifesto is clearly an attempt to cover up for failures in the last five years with even more outlandish promises.

Congress’ 2019 manifesto

When one reads the Congress’ manifesto after reading the BJP’s 2014 and 2019 manifestos, one detects a distinctive change in tone.

While the BJP attempts to focus on development and tries to impress the voter with unbelievable claims of future achievements, the Congress does not give numerical targets for many of the same metrics. For example, its manifesto talks about “augmenting” the road network, rather than the promise of increasing India’s road network by a numerical target like 60,000 km in the next five years. Most of the development promises by the Congress are to do better in the next five years, but it does not lay down precise numbers for the same.

What is noteworthy about the Congress manifesto is that it is largely a manifesto for social justice and social change even though there are many fiscal promises in it too. We can think of the Congress’ manifesto promises as belonging to one of three categories: fiscal performance promises, fiscal and administrative policy changes, and social policy changes.

On the fiscal side, the Congress promises to fill all four lakh Central government and institutional vacancies; start two federal national renewal missions—waterbodies restoration and wasteland regeneration—to create employment on a massive scale reminiscent of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”; increase the percentage of manufacturing in GDP terms from 16 per cent to 25 per cent; keep fiscal deficit down to 3 per cent (the United Progressive Alliance I average was 4 per cent, and the Modi average is 3.7 per cent); keep revenue deficit at 1 per cent of GDP; increase expenditure on science and technology to 2 per cent of GDP; double education spending to 6 per cent of GDP (same as the BJP promise in 2014); and exempt start-ups from regulation for three years.

On policy changes, the Congress promises to put real estate, petroleum, tobacco and liquor under goods and services tax (GST); divest from non-core, non-strategic Central Public Sector Undertakings; give Special Category status to Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern States; give full Statehood to Puducherry; strictly implement the National Capital Territory Act of 1991 to prevent overreach by the Lieutenant Governor in Delhi; scrap electoral bonds and start a national election fund; implement 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament and in government posts; strengthen the Right to Information (RTI) Act; take steps to protect data privacy; bring more openness in government so as to reduce the need for RTI requests; scrap the NITI Aayog; and scrap the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET examination), among others.

The most important parts of the manifesto, however, are the social justice and liberal society promises. They include a right to homestead Act; the NYAY scheme, a guaranteed dole of Rs.72,000 a year to 20 per cent of the poorest citizens of the country; an increase in employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) from 100 to 150 days; minimum wages in the unorganised sector; the right to organise and collective bargaining; the portability of ration cards; the waiving of farm loans all over the country; repeal of the APMC Act; the guarantee of artistic freedom; making defamation a civil rather than a criminal offence; scrapping the sedition law; amending laws that allow detention without trial; introducing a prevention of torture Act; amending the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) to remove immunity for the heinous offences of rape, forced disappearance and torture (specifically mentioned); restrict search, seize, attach, summon, interrogate, and arrest powers; amending the justice system so that jail is the exception and bail is the rule; reforming prisons; amending the Press Council Act to increase press freedom; curbing monopolies in press ownership; preserving Internet freedom; promoting Net neutrality; providing police protection to journalists in sensitive areas or cases; restricting censorship of films; prohibiting child marriage; stopping eviction of forest tribals; and making English compulsory in all government schools as a medium of instruction.

In addition, the Congress proposes to introduce reservation in promotions in government posts and in the private sector. These proposals are likely to be contentious. As can be easily seen, the scope of these proposals is staggering. Many of these are welcome steps in the evolution of a liberal democracy, especially the prohibitions against the arbitrary power of the state and the proposals in favour of free speech. Some of these proposals are bound to run into rough weather and opposition. But if a majority of the best ideas in this groundbreaking manifesto were to be implemented, India would be a vastly better place.

CPI(M) manifesto

One could view the Congress manifesto as a leftward turn. While this is true, it is a moderated turn, keeping in view the current realities of India’s arrangements in the global world. To understand this, it is instructive to look at the proposals in the true party of the Left, the CPI(M).

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the CPI(M) seeks a reversal of the entire liberalisation process since 1992. For example, the CPI(M) promises to halt privatisation of public sector enterprises and roll back privatisation in defence, energy, railways, health care, banking, electricity and insurance; withdraw foreign direct investment in defence, finance, higher education, and online and print media; amend the Special Economic Zone Act; reimpose controls on the inflow and outflow of finance capital; review the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights agreement and Free Trade Agreements with various countries; do away with public-private partnerships; and abolish special purpose vehicles for projects.

Apart from these, there are many welfare proposals which one would expect from the Left, such as unemployment allowance for the jobless; rice through the public distribution system at 7 kg a person at Rs.2 a kg; right to free health care; old-age pension, which is at least half the minimum wage, or Rs.6,000, whichever is higher; raise taxes on the rich and on corporate profits; restore wealth tax for the superrich and introduce inheritance tax; and restore long-term capital gains tax.

The Left has never liked India’s increasing closeness to the United States, and so promises to reverse defence cooperation with the U.S.; not allow the import of foreign nuclear reactors; and remove the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s offices and officials from India.

Like the Congress, the CPI(M), too, supports the 33 per cent reservation for women in Parliament; doubling the education budget to 6 per cent of GDP; reservation in jobs and education in private sector for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes; repealing (where the Congress proposes to amend) the sedition law and AFSPA; repealing/amending the National Security Act and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act; repealing the defamation law; restoring the Planning Commission; and ending torture and the death penalty.

Further, the Left proposes to scrap the Aadhaar programme; have a citizens’ charter and grievance redress mechanisms; scrap the Fiscal Management and Budget Management Act and set a minimum floor for social spending; and compensate dispossessed and displaced farmers. In summary, the CPI(M)’s manifesto is a combination of socialist economic policies and social welfare schemes. This helps us understand the moderate stance of the Congress.

Samajwadi Party manifesto

The Samajwadi Party (S.P.) is fundamentally a socialist party, and so its manifesto contains elements such as the Samajwadi pension, Rs.3,000 a month to women in the poorest families; the Lohia Grameen Aawas Yojana, involving building houses for the poorest; a plan to finance these schemes by an additional 2 per cent tax on total wealth of households owning more than Rs.2.5 crore; a proposal to improve education by having interactive lessons in local languages to students; a proposal to provide the neediest students with tablets and phones; a playground in each village cluster, and a stadium in each district; hostels for boys and girls in major college towns; automated cleaning for drains; and a community-based financing model that prevents usurers from taking advantage of vulnerable farmers.

What one understands from all this is that at the ground level, there is a need for a more inclusive society—that there is a need to balance growth and social justice. The manifestos of the Congress, the Left and the S.P. understand this angst among the poor and the rural population and have responded to it in varying degrees, and that is why they have fashioned their manifestos accordingly.

Seshadri Kumar is an R&D chemical engineer with a BTech from IIT Bombay and an M.S. and a PhD from the University of Utah, U.S. He writes regularly on political, social, economic and cultural affairs at http://www.leftbrainwave.com

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 10, 2019.)

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