Promises and policies

Published : Feb 21, 1998 00:00 IST

The manifestoes of the main contestants on the national scene reveal a well-developed tendency to state the obvious and to reaffirm traditional verities: the core areas of divergence lie in the details.

IF the early theme in the run-up to the general elections was the arithmetical consolidation of disparate vote blocs across the country, the later infusion of an element of dynastic charisma caused some overhaul of initial calculations. Purists among political analysts may have reason to feel upset. The ideological and programmatic content has been decisively subordinated in the ongoing contest. Party manifestoes have, for this reason, attracted no more than perfunctory interest.

A scrutiny of the election manifestoes of the main contestants reveals a well-developed tendency to state the obvious and to reaffirm traditional verities - a commitment to economic development, to an independent voice in world affairs, respect for the integrity of various institutions of governance, concern for those who are yet to benefit from economic growth. The core areas of divergence lie in the details. But the preambles of the various manifestoes, which construct the general ambience, also have their own tale to tell.

The BJP's manifesto begins with the invocation of an eternal Indian mind that has found its expression in the Indian nation. "It is this ancient Indian mind that formulated the Constitution of India," says the BJP's election manifesto and "it is not the Constitution that shaped the Indian mind." It is a curious locution, which invests the BJP's promise to "review the Constitution of India, in the light of the experience of the past 50 years" with a certain ominous quality.

It bears recalling that the BJP till not long ago was a staunch advocate of a presidential system of government, which presumably would eliminate the multiple sources of uncertainty and instability that parliamentary democracy is prone to. They found little purchase for their idea, since the dominant sentiment in other quarters was that a presidential system tilts too strongly towards a variety of political absolutism that a fledgling democracy cannot afford. The current promise to "review" the Constitution, though the party is yet to spell out any details, is read as an effort to recycle this old proposal and seek more far-reaching changes in the system of governance.

The preamble to the Constitution establishes with some clarity that it is the embodiment of the popular will of the Indian people, rather than an expression of any ancient "mind". The BJP's effort to bring a quasi-divine element into the discourse on constitutional matters is not the best advertisement of a commitment to secularism and tolerance.

The Congress(I)'s manifesto stays resolutely within the worldly discourse but recycles the theme that "India is one and many at the same time." It advances the party's unique claim to "understanding and managing the nuances" of this status, both preserving the oneness of the nation and safeguarding its diversities.

The United Front, in a "joint policy declaration" that just stops short of being a manifesto, puts forward its own distinctive perception of this issue - "strengthening the bonds of commonality amidst this diversity" - a task that cannot be achieved by "seeking to impose a uniformity on this diversity as the communal forces seek to do". The attack on the Congress(I)'s credentials is somewhat more subtle - the U.F. criticises successive Congress governments for failing to play by the rules of federalism and equivocating when faced with the challenge of communalism.

In a separate manifesto that stakes out an autonomous position within the U.F. coalition, the Left parties achieve a still sharper formulation. "Strong States will result in a strong Centre," it says, promising "constitutional amendments for devolving more powers to the States."

Between the BJP's subtle statement of a centralising intent and the Left parties' explicit avowal of decentralisation, the four principal political formations travel the entire spectrum of Centre-State relations. It is in respect of this subject that the shades of difference between the principal contestants are very apparent. And when the focus is shifted to Kashmir and the northeastern region - two regions of the country where insurgency and the separatist tendency have struck root - the differences emerge with equal clarity.

For the BJP, the insurgency in Kashmir does not even merit a detailed effort at understanding. The antidote, quite simply, is the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, which in the party's perception ensures a special status for the State of Jammu and Kashmir. And as far as the northeastern region is concerned, the problem has arisen as a direct consequence of the Congress(I)'s "manipulative and corrupt politics". The remedy lies in a stiff dose of development, stemming from a comprehensive programme that focusses on "basic communications infrastructure like roads, railways, bridges and air link," and in harnessing the "immense hydroelectric potential in the region."

The Congress(I) echoes this prescription for the northeastern region, though it maintains a strange silence on Kashmir. In the case of this region it is willing to provide a degree of latitude to political measures. Again, the Left parties bring up the other end of the continuum, with a firm affirmation that the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir will be protected and extended within the terms of Article 370, and that insurgent groups in the northeastern region will be invited into the negotiating process without compromising national unity. The U.F. declaration incorporates these elements of the Left programme, though it does augment them with a number of financial commitments targeted towards development.

Surprisingly, the perennially divisive issue of Ayodhya finds a mention only in the programme of action charted out in two manifestoes. The BJP, expectedly, reaffirms its pledge to construct a "magnificent Shri Ram temple" in Ayodhya. The concession it has made is to exempt Kashi and Mathura from mention and to promise "consensual, legal and constitutional means" to facilitate the construction project. It is not clear how the BJP intends to clear the legal logjam that has developed around the Ayodhya issue over the last 50 years. A legislative effort to cut through the multitude of suits would be legally vulnerable.

The Left parties take a clear stand - that all the suits connected with Ayodhya will be combined and referred to the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under Article 138(2) of the Constitution for a speedy judicial verdict. Since the origin of the problem is in a dispute over title and the BJP's effort to consecrate the disputed site as an icon of the new idiom of cultural nationalism is an after-thought, this approach serves the important function of demystification. But, in a transparent concession to the electoral compulsions of one of its main partners, the joint declaration of the U.F. makes no such specific point.

After castigating the BJP for its culpability in the event, the Congress(I) "unreservedly apologises to the people of India" for its failure to protect the Babri Masjid. The Congress(I) manifesto holds out the "solemn pledge" that such events will not be allowed to recur. But on how to excise the festering sore of Ayodhya, it remains silent. This is consistent with the Congress(I)'s policy of equivocation ever since Ayodhya emerged on the political landscape as a serious issue.

An issue which the BJP stands alone in advocating is the uniform civil code. In keeping with its new pretence, the party promises to abide by a strategy of conciliation and consensus. A high-powered panel of experts, it promises, will be set up to examine the civil codes in practice amongst various communities and to adapt the best of each in a manner that ensures gender equality.

Substantive differences between the Congress(I) and the BJP break down in the realm of economic policy. This is curious, since the Congress(I) prefaces its explorations in economic policy with a celebration of the achievements of the P.V. Narasimha Rao regime that lasted five years - a record in which the BJP sees little of value. The Left parties stake out a strong alternative position, and have managed to influence the U.F. declaration to a certain degree.

For the Congress(I), the goal of economic policy is growth in all spheres - industry, agriculture and exports. This requires an increase in investment in social and physical infrastructure. The job of matching revenues to expenditure is touched upon, without any effort to address the specifics.

The BJP's attitude is summed up in the rather ambiguous slogan of "full internal liberalisation with calibrated globalisation." In contrast to the Congress(I), the BJP does seek to address some of the specific details of revenue mobilisation. But it confines itself to a formulation of such generality that it verges on the banal. It promises a "widening of the tax base" and the supplementation of resources with "non-tax revenues". Further details are not given.

The Left parties' document is unique in putting land reforms right at the forefront of economic policy concerns. They then work their way through the rights of landless agricultural labourers, industrial workers and the unorganised workforce, including child labour.

Taking a cue from the Left position, the U.F. has spelt out a trilogy of fundamental tasks - reaching an assured minimum quantum of food to every household, providing health care and basic literacy to every Indian, and putting every child in school. The Left parties have a fairly categoric stand on resource mobilisation measures - widening the base of direct taxation and raising rates on the affluent sections. The U.F., though willing to go along with the first component, is not quite so firmly committed to the second.

Quite apart from stated intent, there is much room for ambiguity about the political will and capability for action. The Congress(I)'s repeated affirmation of basic verities sounds rather implausible against its actual record in office for by far the larger part of the last five decades. The BJP has little by way of concrete achievements to buttress its professions from the States it has been ruling. The U.F., in contrast, can call upon the 18 months it has had in authority to show that it has the requisite will. Whether the actual achievements are commensurate with the promises that were made and whether they justify another opportunity from the electorate, may still seem debatable.

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