So, this is a season of manifestos just days before India goes for general elections, decidedly the largest the world has seen so far with 900 millions exercising their franchise.
The Challenger Pledges:
The Challenger, Congress, was the first to announce its manifesto among the top two national parties. Its top few promises were as follows. Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY), under which 5 crore families or the poorest 20% of Indians will be guaranteed a cash transfer of Rs.72,000 a year ideally in the bank account of the eldest woman in the family. Congress pledges to give high priority to jobs first filling up the 22 lacs vacant positions of central government within March 2020. It will pass a law in the first session itself to prevent ad punish hate-crimes such as lynching and vigilante violence. 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, AFSPA law giving impunity to the military being reviewed, and British era sedition law scrapped also making defamation a civil offence. Congress further pledges to set up an inter-faith council of all religions for dialogues & cultural exchange. Congress will pass a law to prohibit discrimination on grounds of religion, caste, gender or language in getting houses, hostels, hotel or club services, and a law to provide safeguards against unlawful or excessive surveillance and monitoring. Attempts of vigilante groups to censor on intimidate artists will dealt with an iron hand. Linking of Aadhaar will be voluntary, but encouraged, but none excluded from government services like ration due to non-linking. Congress has promised to scrap the opaque electoral bond scheme. It will pass regulations to stop the spread of fake news and hate speech and punish those who misuse digital and social media. Congress pledges to create manufacturing capacities in the public sector and in pre-qualified security-cleared private companies. It will scrap the Niti Ayog, and its GST 2.0 will be based on a single, moderate, standard rate of tax, easy to understand and administer. It has promised extension of MNREGA to a guaranteed 150 days of work in rural India, and has called for law for Right to Health, apart from farm loan waivers across India, 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.
The Incumbent Resolves:
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. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of "antyoday" (the rise of the last) accompanying rashtrawad (nationalism) as his party's inspiration and "sushasan" (good governance) as the third lynchpin in its policy. The 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. Finance Minister Jaitley speaks of a sustainable 8 percent GDP growth ahead to make India a 5-trillion-dollar economy by 2025 if his party returns to power, a planned doubling of national highways over the next five years and a huge dose of farm sector investment. On the Ram Mandir, the manifesto says: “We reiterate our stand on Ram Mandir. We 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.” On the issue of entry for women of all ages into the Sabarimala shrine, the Sankalp Patra says that the party would “endeavour to secure constitutional protection on issues related to faith and belief”. The manifesto has reiterated the BJP’s commitment to drafting a Uniform Civil Code — “BJP believes that there cannot be gender equality till such time India adopts a Uniform Civil Code, which protects the rights of all women". On Kashmir, the manifesto underlines that “We reiterate our position since the time of the Jan Sangh to the abrogation of Article 370”, and says that “We are committed to annulling Article 35A of the Constitution as the provision is discriminatory against non-permanent residents and women of Jammu and Kashmir. Nationalism is the strongest flavour in the BJP's Sankalp Patra or manifesto that projects Prime Minister as the strongest and most able leader for India in the 21st century. While Rajnath Singh, chairman of the manifesto committee, 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.
Bottoms-Up versus Top-Down Approaches:
Looking back on 2014 BJP 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, the BJP ended some of the UPA era mess on coal, spectrum and banking, but they seem be a hazy past as elections loom. BJP's 'sankalpa-patra' 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 the Congress party's NYAY (universal basic income) plan. In BJP-speak, big numbers shout "growth" while the fine print for farmers and the poor whispers "tokenism". Unlike the Congress, the BJP believes in asset-spending rather than consumption spending as its lynchpin. Neither it is clear where the 100 lac crores of assets and 25 lacs crores of farm investments will come from as promised by the BJP, nor is it clear where the 3.6 lacs crores 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 the BJP to paint a rural mural.
This much can be said: the BJP and the 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.
Promises on Sidelines:
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. The 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.
The Samajwadi Party 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. The party promised it would expand the purview of its now-defunct Samajwadi Pension Yojana to maximise its reach. The scheme was scrapped by the incumbent Yogi Adityanath government after coming to power in March 2017. SP has also proposed to impose an additional 2% tax on households having property worth more than Rs 2.5 crore (which it claimed numbered 0.1% of the total domestic households) 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. The party has also promised to provide 100,000 new jobs every year. The party 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% of farmers depended upon moneylenders. “There have been farm loan waiver announcements, however, it has been seen that eligibility criteria is so tough that most farmers do not benefit.” As far as national security is concerned, the party has said that it will create an Ahir Armoured Regiment and a Gujarat Infantry Regiment, and adopt a tough stance while dealing with Pakistan and China. 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, specially Congress, and top-down growth economics approach of the BJP where the state will create infra-structure for private initiatives to make hay and grow. And, both sides, strategically silent on the resources needed to implement their visions.
The author is a media academic and columnist, currently the Media Dean of Pearl Academy, Delhi & Mumbai, and earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.