The adage ‘Too Little Too Late’ best describes the election manifesto of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right-wing Hindu nationalist party of India, which is hoping to wrest power from the ruling Congress in the ongoing elections. Election manifestos are a must in a democratic election process as they represent the political parties’ statement of intent – their goals and purposes and the means by which they intend to achieve them. The manifesto should be one of the first things that should be presented to the voter once the election is announced so that an informed choice can be made on the day of polling. The BJP left it so late that some parts of India had no time to read and reflect on what the party’s vision of the country was before they went to cast their vote. With scant regard for the conventions of the democratic process, the BJP released its manifesto on 7th April – the same day as the first phase of polling. Some states in the North-East of India voted before the BJP gave its statement of intent, and considering that these states do not figure prominently in the manifesto that was finally released, it is seen as indication of the BJP’s disregard for either their problems or their votes. The delay was unprecedented.
As for the content, the BJP manifesto bears the stamp of the party’s PM-in-waiting, Narendra Modi, the current chief minister of the western state of Gujarat and infamous for presiding over the worst massacre of Muslims in independent India. Much like the election campaign that Modi has been running for almost six months now, the manifesto too focuses on ‘development’ and ‘growth’ rather than on sectarian and divisive issues like building a huge temple on the ruins of a 400-year-old mosque torn down by BJP workers in 1992, or repealing Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which guarantees special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir because of its strategic position on the border between India and Pakistan, or the promulgation of a uniform civil code that strips minorities of their religious rights. These three promises that have been at the forefront of all previous BJP manifestos as they appeal to the Hindu right-wing to which the party panders, do find mention even in the current charter but are couched in more temperate language and figure in the cultural-heritage segment on the second-last page of the 42 page document, rather than at the beginning as in previous years. By placing its Hindutva agenda in such a manner the BJP hopes to lure the more middle-of-the-road voter to its fold who is not interested in these three issues but is attracted by promises of development and growth. At the same time by leaving out the Hindutva agenda completely, the BJP would have alienated its core vote-bank, hence this was a happy compromise.
While Modi has spoken incessantly about ‘development’ and ‘growth’ and following the Gujarat model, the manifesto falls short on providing any figures or how this growth will be brought about. Unlike the Congress which has promised to bring back the growth rate to 8% plus in the next 3 years, the BJP has not set any target. Modi’s economic vision is also based on opening up the country to Foreign Direct Investment and he has promised the go-ahead in all sectors bar one – the multi-brand retail. Hence brands like Tesco and Walmart which have been waiting in the wings will be disappointed. The BJP’s core constituency is the big and small trader and if FDI had been allowed in the retail sector then there were apprehensions of this constituency defecting to the Aam Aadmi Party.
Modi does not believe in inclusive growth but in the trickle-down effect and hence the chapter on the social sector is weak and has drawn criticism that most of the schemes have been copied from the Congress manifesto and in some cases promised schemes which are already in existence and have been running for the last 10 years. There are promises to address the problem of infrastructure but it doesn’t say where the money for this will come from. ‘Good governance’ is something else that Modi has been harping on about, but there is no clearly thought-out programme for reform or what this good governance actually means in real terms. Modi’s manifesto is much like Modi’s speeches – high on rhetoric and low on facts and figures.
Sajeda Momin has a M.Sc in International Relations from the University of Southampton. A journalist by profession, she divides her time between the UK and India where she has held senior positions in The Telegraph, The Statesman, The Asian Age, DNA and The Bengal Post.