Strengthening Democracy Through Manifestos

Kanksshi Agarwal

A well drafted, consulted and researched manifesto is an attempt to set the discourse around policies, but are all the political parties taking the responsibility which is bestowed upon them ?

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This post is the 6th Installment to Law School Policy Review’s Election Series, 2019.

Mr. Arun Jaitley, the Union Finance minister recently wrote an article titled, “India’s opposition is on a ‘Rent a cause’ Campaign”. His idea was to slash the opposition on the dearth of issues and leadership. He alleged opposition is taking up a different thread each day without synchronization. He also suggests campaigns are important to win an election. This raises an important question about the increasingly dominating role of campaigns and side-lining critical documents like party manifesto, individual candidates, local issues and “development” agenda. The article is nothing but an attempt to shift the narrative to “campaigning” and stifle the discussion around manifestos. BJP’s manifesto which was launched on 8th April stokes the contentious issues of Ram Mandir, expansion of National Registration of Citizenship to other parts of the country, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370. Leaders from the ruling party are avoiding any public discussion on their manifesto instead of tweeting points from it which furthers their saffron ideology. The discussion is currently NYAY Vs. Pseudo-Nationalism (Policy Versus Ideology).

Congress’s Manifesto: A Road to “Issue-based” politics

Congress party, which seemed to have lost in the delusionary race of running a campaign on social media, once again garnered media attention with its manifesto launch on 2nd April 2019. The Manifesto titled, “We will deliver (Hum Nibhayenge)”, has proven to be a turning point and has brought the narrative on policies and vision that the opposition has proposed. A manifesto prepared by a political party lacks a legal basis, or in-depth policy framework. The purpose is to set the party’s agenda. However, for the first time, any political party undertook a grand exercise of 121 public and 53 expert consultations, covering 24 states and 3 Union territories in over 60 locations. It was a 9-month long exercise from conceptualization to launch focusing on the real issues of different interest groups.

A step towards accountability– The Congress party has declared that a yearly review of the implementation of the promises will be undertaken and a yearly report will be published.

Making Manifestos Relevant:

In 2019, 900 million voters will decide the fate of the political parties and choose their government. Psephology suggests that different variables like caste, religion, affiliation to ideology, and media along with campaigns determine the outcome of elections. Ground issues of multiple segments of the society usually take a back-seat. Manifestos are usually wrapped intellectual exercises and do not become relevant in key political debate. A newfound relevance of manifestos is directly proportional to externalizing the process. Manifestos have a history of going unread, but making the process consultative, directly involves people making them stakeholders of every word written down. Political parties do run a risk in opening up the process. The risk of filtering responses and not being fully accommodative of lakhs of ideas. While some ideas echo across the country, others are too specific. Such risk can put the party on the radar of critiques who feel unheard.

Mr. Modi is the first Prime Minister in the history of India to never hold a press conference. The questions for his speeches, rallies, video conferences, and Man Ki Baat are selected in advance. The extent of scrutiny in the current regime is noteworthy. On the contrary, the opposition constituted a team to work on the manifesto inputs, research on the legitimacy and implications of the ideas that would be finally included and present a wholesome and inclusive vision of the future.

This unique, consulted, well-researched, manifesto immediately earned the faith of people and media attention. The manifesto is not the voice of the veterans and intellectuals in the party. On which Arun Jaitley, responded, that it is written by “tukde-tukde” gang and “Ivy League”. When the ruling party rubbished the manifesto, it was not on the grounds of policies or ideas, but rather on how it was drafted. In rejecting Congress’s manifesto today, BJP is alienating the people who have lend their issues for the preparation of it.

A good manifesto is only a beginning:

It is crucial to understand that communication is the key. In today’s time when the media has been captured by the jingoists, and as Mr. Jaitley pointed out, online campaigning has taken over the narrative, it is hard to make manifestos the center of the debate.

Without a strong campaign the messaging of “ghoshana patra” is like a horse in the stable.

India’s literacy rate is alarming at 74% according to the 2011 census. Fundamentally skewed definition of literacy at the centre of it, a large number of voters do not make an effort to read the manifesto or understand the promises in pith and substance. This number also includes literate voters, who usually raise a concern of undelivered manifesto promises in the past.

Eventually, the responsibility of bringing manifesto to the people rests with the media and social media. Considering the digital penetration to be lower, the mainstream media, with propaganda and TRP at its core, only politicizes the policies. It is not to say; manifestos are independent of political ideology.

How to compare Party Manifestos:

Without taking a beating to read bulky documents- key “words”, “phrases”, “focus” and “depth” can give a sense of the political ideology. Also, during elections, people must refer to older manifestos, and hold government accountable for undelivered promises which distinctly feature again.

Usually, interest groups tend to read sections relevant to them, however, glancing through the key elements can evoke the larger ideology of the party and its commitment.

Comparing BJP and Congress Manifesto on 4 issues will exemplify this argument-

Indian National Congress Bhartiya Janta Party
WOMEN’S SECURITY AND SAFETY Promises a comprehensive review of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplaces Act, 2013 and will extend the Act to all workplaces. Additionally, institute measures to address all forms of harassment of women.

To pass model legislation to establish a separate investigative agency to investigate heinous crimes against women and children.

Women’s security will be given more priority. We have constituted the Women’s Security Division in the Home Ministry, and have made strict provisions for transferring the laws in order to commit crimes against women, in particular in a time-bound investigation and trial for rape. In such cases, forensic facilities and fast track courts will be expanded to bring convicts to justice
HEALTH The Right to Healthcare Act, that will guarantee to every citizen the right to healthcare services, including free diagnostics, out-patient care, medicines, and hospitalization.

PHCs will provide all primary health services, including preventive measures and wellness services. In addition, vacancies filled at all levels PHCs and in public hospitals within 1 year.

Initiated a programme to set up 1,50,000 Health and Wellness Centres (HWCs) by 2022. Till date, 17,150 HWCs have become functional. We will take up the programme of HWCs to next level. We will target provisioning of telemedicine and diagnostic laboratory facilities at these HWCs by 2022 to ensure quality primary medical care to the poor at his doorstep.
CULTURE Support, funds, and promotion of- Art institutions, identities who are anthropologically significant, fellowship to artists in traditional arts and crafts, retrieving India’s stolen art, more historical monuments to be brought under Archaeological Survey of India. Ram Mandir.

Sabarimala- Will ensure that the issue of Sabarimala is presented before the Supreme Court in a comprehensive manner.

URBAN GOVERNANCE The promise is to bring in a new model of governance of directly elected mayors and councils for a fixed term of 5 years. Promises, to set up new urban, sub-urban townships, 50 cities to be covered under metro network, and establish 5 institutes to provide support to states and cities.

Women– BJP’s promise focuses on post-crime remedy such as fast track courts. Congress’s promise focuses on reviewing the existing laws, expansion of the law so that more women can be protected in addition to the investigation agency which will expedite the investigation. For a reader, such nuisances are hard but necessary observations. Also, Congress’s focus seems to be on reliable, inclusive legislation, which is the primary responsibility of the central government.

Health– BJP’s promise focuses more on infrastructure, which is again usually an after-thought a micro-level policy plan. INC’s manifesto focuses on legislation and other issues which are pertinent to the people.

Culture– BJP’s stance on Sabarimala issue has been clear, but including a point on presenting the case of Sabarimala in front of Supreme Court is taking it way beyond. The focus on Ram Mandir, Uniform civil code, and exclusive “Bhartiya culture” is inexplicable to issue-based politics. While congress’s promises focus on steps that will improve the infrastructure and Indian pride in the world as more artists come out of India.

Urban Governance: Congress’s promise to bring in a directly elected mayor is revolutionary, and promotes democracy and accountability at the local level of government. Other promises on urban policy enhance the importance of localized decision making. BJP’s promise centralizes the process of urbanization which is constitutionally a state subject.

CONCLUSIONS:

A well drafted, consulted and researched manifesto is an attempt to set the discourse around policies. It must be read critically. Such a manifesto makes people direct stakeholders of the party’s vision from the start. It reduces the burden of convincing people of the party’s knowledge of the issues and ability to solve them. A well-written manifesto will go a long way with articulate messaging and strong campaigns. Media and social media should not be the final source of consumption when it comes to understanding the nuances of any issue-based discussion. It is not merely an expectation but responsibility of the influencers, intelligentsia, civil society, research think-tanks to analyze and extensively read manifestos, explain the key issues and take them to masses through their eminent presence.


Kanksshi Agarwal is a policy and political researcher. She worked with Prof. Rajeev Gowda and Congress Manifesto Committee for drafting the party’s manifesto for 2019 Elections. A post- graduate from TISS, Mumbai in Urban Policy and Governance, she has worked with UN Women, UNICEF in the past. She was a LAMP fellow (2018-19) batch and takes a keen interest in women issues, urban, labor and climate policies, and politics in India.


The views expressed in this post are personal. LSPR does not associate with the author’s views. We invite replies and comments from anyone who wishes to support/refute the claims made through this post.

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