I have been a manifesto writer ever since I moved to Delhi in 1984 and should know what I am talking about on them. Often it would seem that the preparation and release of a manifesto is considered just a part of the ritual with no real bearing on the outcome. Since manifestos are mostly written without knowledge or realization and more often than not without even any serious discussion, the chances that a party once in power will even dust out what was offered as a manifesto for implementation are very slim.
The Congress Party’s 2004 manifesto famously outline a set of goals for the first hundred days. Nothing happened. Nobody even asked why? It was just in the manifesto and that apparently was not serious enough to warrant a debate in Parliament or in the media? Likewise, the BJP’s 1998 manifesto promised a combined defence staff headed by a single Chief of Defence Staff. It was in power for five years after that, but nothing happened. This has a special valence for the BJP for it is the elephant’s graveyard of many senior military officers. The BJP’s very delayed 2014 manifesto has now extravagantly promised a high rail and passenger network to connect the four main metros, and a hundred new cities. But there is not even a whisper about how this will be achieved and how much will it cost. After all if you offer something you should know and tell us how much it will entail and where the money is going to come from? Clearly the BJP has no idea and has not thought this through.
Most manifestos deal with goals and objectives. On this there can be few differences. For instance in the 2014 manifestos the Congress, BJP, CPM and AAP all promise pension to all workers in the unorganized sector, in all about 350-400 million strong. But there is not a word quantifying this. They all promise housing for the poor. But how many houses do they plan to build in how much time or at what cost is not addressed. And since parties do not debate each other on issues and the media does not want to discuss issues manifestos are cavalier with ways and means and generous with promises.
But even as manifestos go, some promises are clearly outrageous and deceptive. For instance the BJP’s 2014 manifesto promises “50% profit over production cost.” Is it 50% of production cost or another 50% that is equal to the production cost? How the BJP proposes to do this, it does not say? Can it even be done? If profits are assured then how will it ensure prices are kept down? If profits are assured and linked to cost of production what incentive will be there to keep production costs low? Since farmers already get subsidized fertilizers, credit and electricity when it is not free, and free water nationwide; will this factor in input calculations? Clearly the BJP is being cleverer than by half? And it has not thought things through again.
The BJP indulges in more artful dodging when on reservations it talks of bringing “SC/STs, OBCs and other weaker sections under IT enabled development.” What does this sentence mean and what is the intention it seeks to convey, only the BJP or its declared PM candidate can answer. But Narendra Modi doesn’t give press conferences and doesn’t give media interviews either, unless it is to the very faithful. So nobody is asking or will ask. On fighting corruption the BJPs panacea to the national affliction is to “focus on technology enabled e-governance, minimizing discretion in citizen/government interface, simplify processes and procedures.” But doesn’t it know that the issue of vehicle registrations and driving licenses is already IT enabled in most states, but has it reduced the incidence of corruption and the cost of getting things done? Most states have computerized land records, but getting a copy of the registered title can still entail the same costs if not more.
Bringing more of the government under the ambit of IT will not solve the problem of corruption. The bottleneck in getting a passport is not in the Regional Passport Office, but getting the police verification report to state that you exist at the address shown and are of good character. Very few can cross this hurdle without paying under the table. Does it come as a surprise then that the gangster Abu Salem had several valid passports?
The answer lies in having a zero tolerance policy on corruption and swift judicial processes and salutary punishments. But this will then entail a reform of the judicial system, now increasingly corrupt and even suspected to be so right up to the very highest of courts. It seems too tall an order for a lawyer infested party and whose fortunes hinge of delayed judicial processes? In contrast the Congress doesn’t even try to obfuscate. It just promises to enact Rahul Gandhi’s bills.
In the last decade and a half we have seen the expansion of bank credit by nationalized banks rise from about Rs.1.2 lakh crores to Rs.24 lakh crores. Of this almost 20% is considered to be NPAs. Neither the Congress nor the BJP considers the imminent loss of Rs. 4.8 lakh crores a serious challenge to the economy and the banking sector in particular, and hence there is no mention about it at all. As many as 36 of the top 50 industrial groups are now considered to be in default, and they are clamoring for restructure of their financial obligations, which means they want more money from the government owned banks and financial institutions.
The two major national parties are together going to spend about Rs. 15-20000 crores on their electioneering. I have read somewhere that as many as 250 corporate jets and helicopters are zipping around the country connecting the leaders to the people. But who is footing the bills? Narendra Modi is zipping around in an Adani jet. The Adani Group is in default for about Rs.20, 000 crores. And it clearly needs a huge dose of restructure. Typically in India restructure doesn’t mean hiving off units, or changing managements. It only means pouring in more public money into private coffers, a good part of which ends up abroad or to pay for elections. None of the major parties such as the Congress, CPM, SP, BSP, DMK, AIADMK, SAD, JD (U), TMC, TDP, TRS and the rest of the alphabet soup promise anything on this score. Why then should the BJP?
The blandness and shoddy drafting of the BJPs manifesto is evidence of much last minute red-penciling. This could very well have been the Congress Party’s manifesto. And this is certainly not a manifesto written by a small group headed by Murli Manohar Joshi, probably the zaniest original thinker in national politics, as you must be if you are a physics professor who believes in astrology. We all know that the release of the manifesto was delayed, as Modi seemed to have serious reservations and wanted to work on it himself. If this is a product of his intervention, then only less said the better?
Mohan Guruswamy is a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center and based in India. This article was originally published in The Citizen on April 9, 2014.