The man and the manifesto

Some observers are upset that the principal opposition party in India’s 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has issued its election manifesto only on the morning of the first day of polling.

BJP’s spokespersons claimed that the party’s agenda has been the clearest among all political parties and has been articulated over and over in its prime ministerial candidateNarendra Modi’s rallies.

The most obvious reason for this delay perhaps was that Murli Manohar Joshi is the chief of BJP’s manifesto committee—the same gentleman who was eased out of his Varanasi seat to make way for Modi.

The first two names on the committee are that of Jaswant Singh and Yashwant Sinha.

Singh stands expelled and it is not improbable that Sinha hasn’t taken very well this treatment of his old colleague. It’s conjecture, but the manifesto committee is in disarray. But I digress—the important question is, did the BJP need a manifesto for 2014, or was it better off without one?

You can argue that every political party contesting an election has to come out with its election manifesto. Whether the voter actually reads it or not, a manifesto is a declaration of intent—in economic policy, foreign policy, law and order, social welfare and other such important measures that we like to use to judge our political parties and our governments.

A promise in a manifesto is not legally enforcible, but is used by rivals and the civil society to hold political parties to account. The BJP recognises that only too well, having held out the six-year Vajpayee tenure essentially as its party’s promise of governance.

However, that of course has not been the focus of its election campaign this time around. The focus squarely has been on Modi.

The absence of a manifesto helped Modi to escape scrutiny on the details of his proposition for the top job and allowed him to contradict his party if required.

Delaying the release of an official manifesto allowed Modi a longer run, positioning himself as the man who does not play by the conventional rules of the game in Delhi, and he can declare his intention to invite foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, build hundred smart cities, twin cities and throw in MBA-ish frameworks such as P2G2, 5T, a ‘seven point rainbow’ etc—some of which now appear in BJP’s manifesto, but with no additional details of their implementation feasibility.

Let’s take a look at where the BJP manifesto takes us.

The preface lists India’s historical achievements, going as far back as the ‘several thousand years before the Christian era’ and talks about its international outreach in the pre-colonial era (and as expected, doesn’t mention the Mughals at all).

It goes on to lament the six decades of lost opportunity (and in particular, the last decade) and posits the six-year NDA rule as the only bright spot in India’s post-Independence period.

Wonder why the electorate thought otherwise in 2004 and again in 2009, then? But that’s a question the party doesn’t attempt to answer.

What follows is a series of proposals to tackle key concerns—many of them administrative, such as increasing use of technology, moving accountability measures such as time-bound service delivery, etc.

On the other hand, on issues such as criminalisation of politics, decentralisation, social justice, skill training, sanitation and even corruption, it rolls out proposals that are modified versions of what is on paper already.

On land acquisition, tribal issues and environment, some of the primary areas of concern with the policies and operations of Modi’s Gujarat government, the document has little to say.

The manifesto, in many ways, is a reality check—implementation is the primary bottleneck in our country today—and it grounds the hyperbole surrounding Modi’s high-pitched campaign.

The BJP is fighting a dual battle: on one hand is the image-problem on its secular credentials that it has, compounded by Modi’s alleged complicity in the 2002 riots; on the other hand is the promise of development it wants to hold out to the nation, a promise that is best kept vague and rhetorical.

For the BJP ought to know better than any other party, how limited the role of the central government is in this increasingly federal polity.

On this too, the manifesto has little to add to the current discourse, except creating national and regional councils and listening to states as equal partners. Its star chief ministers, including Modi, know only too well that the model that works in the states may not easily be replicated in New Delhi.

A manifesto that rehashes old ideas and stays faithful to its Hindutva roots does not fit with the ideal middle-class darling that Modi is seeking to become.

By delaying the release of its election manifesto, the BJP has got it absolutely right.

This election is not about what the BJP can or cannot do if it comes to power. It is a referendum on Narendra Modi–his past and our future–and for that, the nation needs no manifesto.

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