Finally, the manifestos of both the national parties are out and the nation’s electorates have in their hands the commitments made by both the parties on various fronts of national life, before they make their enlightened electoral choices.
A cursory reading of the two promissory notes reveal of the approach the two parties – the ruling BJP wants to build further on the edifice of its achievements” over the last five years while the Opposition Congress want to woo the voters at any cost.
Titled ‘Congress Will Deliver’ the main opposition party’s thrust has been to highlight the “inability” of the Modi Government to fulfil its promises, particularly raising time and again its promise of crediting Rs 15 lakh each in the bank accounts of every Indian from black money which was to be brought back from Swiss and other foreign accounts, which BJP had repeatedly vowed ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Once bitten, twice shy. Resisting the temptation to go in an auction mode and compete with Congress in offering sops and doles including the Opposition party’s landmark NYAY scheme, the BJP chose to play it safe this time around and toyed with ideas that are seen to be more pragmatic. Apparently, it is a role reversal. One wants to capture power by promising the moon and the other wants to retain power without the fear of being put in the dock once again for making tall claims.
Nevertheless, the Nationalist right emphasized on ideological issues such as national security with an apparent eye on its core constituency and voter base. All the issues deemed to be the party and the larger Sangh Parivar’s core issues found reflection in the manifesto this time unlike in the past when some of these issues were put on the backburner, allegedly for the sake of political expediency.
Thus Ram temple, abrogation of Article 35 A, Uniform Civil Code and even the controversial Sabarimala issue finds a mention in the saffron party’s manifesto but the million dollar question is whether these goals can be achieved without a national consensus in place?
With its declining fortunes getting a boost post-Balakot air strikes, the party chose to cash in hugely on the public sentiments by projecting national security as its foremost priority. This was in sharp contrast to the Left of the Centre Congress party’s promise to revisit the contentious Armed Forces Special Powers Act as also the sections related to sedition in the existing law. These echoed the views of the critics of the ruling party’s hardline stance on these issues. If the BJP wanted to woo the popular nationalist sentiments, the Congress sought to encash the resentment against the same, particularly in Kashmir, North East and Left Wing Extremism affected areas of the country. The need of the hour is to strike that delicate balance between the needs of national security and the fundamental rights of the citizens.
The BJP maintained that it will firmly continue their policy of giving a free hand to security forces to combat terrorism and expedite the purchases of outstanding defense-related equipment, something it has been pursuing over the last five years. Interestingly, the Congress, which remained indecisive on defence purchases and upgradation during its tenure rendering many an asset obsolete, in its current manifesto, said it will reverse the trend of declining defence spending; under the NDA government and also promised to ensure that defence spending is hiked to meet the requirements of the Armed forces. Congress promises to take strategic and hard measures to defend the territorial integrity of India and ensure the safety of our people”, it said in an apparent response to the surgical strikes being projected by the Modi regime as its achievement. But the recent statements made by Congress leaders such as Sam Pitroda certainly does not reflect this approach.
Taking a contrarian position, the Congress party categorically stated that nothing will be done or allowed to change the Constitutional position with regards to Article 370.
Similarly, if the BJP committed itself to the enactment of Citizenship Amendment Bill; for the protection of individuals of religious minority communities from neighbouring countries, seeking to take advantage of the resentment in some sections of the population against the same in North East, the Congress promised to “withdraw” the Citizenship Amendment Bill. The BJP is apparently appealing to its large Hindutva vote bank outside of the North East.
With the agrarian crisis showing no signs of improvement, farmer suicides continuing unabated and farmer unrest raising its head all over the country, BJP said it would work towards Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to double farmers’ income by 2022. But given the current rate of Agricultural growth, this target would be a herculean challenge.
Apart from other promises, the BJP manifesto also mentioned the launch of a full-fledged pension scheme for all small and marginal farmers in the country in a bid to ensure social security and provision of short-term new agriculture loans up to Rs 1 lakh at zero per cent interest rate for 1-5 years on conditions of prompt repayment of the principal amount.
Congress went a step ahead in its manifesto, promising to waive outstanding farm loans in other states, a policy which helped it reap rich dividends in the last round of Assembly polls in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. This is certainly a populist move which can have serious repercussions for the fiscal situation.
The Congress party’s manifesto also promises to prevent criminal proceedings against farmers for failing to repay debt, which indeed is a welcome step. With jobs being one of the major issues for the young voters, BJP plans to extend additional support to 22 major; Champion Sectors that have been identified as the main drivers of the Indian economy; We will optimally leverage the untapped employment-generation of potential of sectors such as defence and pharmaceuticals to take advantage of the opportunities available in domestic and foreign markets; it said.
On the other hand, Congress promised to create a new Ministry of Industry, Services, and Employment to not only provide more scope of employment but also to store accurate data on employment in the country. It also vowed to create lakhs of low-skilled jobs to absorb young men and women who have completed only a few years in school and to launch two major programmes to be implemented through Gram Sabhas and urban local bodies that will create one crore jobs; But both parties have no roadmap in place to achieve the stated goals.
The highlight of the Congress manifesto undoubtedly was the announcement to introduce Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) or Minimum Income Guarantee Scheme to provide Rs 72,000 a year to the 20 per cent poorest families in the country. The money, which adds up to roughly Rs 6,000 a month, will be transferred to the account of a woman member of each family which is a part of the scheme. Laudable indeed but the million dollar question is from where will the money come from? How far is it feasible at the ground level? Will it lead to the end of all other subsidies and hike in Income Tax and other levies?
Comparatively, the BJP appeared far more pragmatic limiting its commitment only to bringing down the percentage of families living below the poverty line to a single digit in the next five years, which too is not going to be a cakewalk, given the financial implications. The then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh had famously stated during the UPA regime that minorities had the first right over the nation’s resources and the Congress continues to woo the minorities with focus on creating specific laws to protect the rights of cultural and religious minorities- such as a law against hate crimes and mob lynchings as well as protecting the status of minority educational institutions as well as promising reservations for SC, ST and OBC communities in job promotions.
The BJP too has sought to woo its core voter base such as traders by promising to set up a National Trade Commission and a pension scheme for traders. Again, the viability is in question. In the aftermath of the BJP’s debacle in the 2004 elections, party veteran L K Advani had famously stated that good governance alone does not yield electoral victories. Both parties seem to have taken a cue from him.
-KG Suresh, Senior Journalist & Former Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication