A Thin Manifesto

Politics, not policy, seems to be the burden of the BJP’s song.

The BJP election manifesto has to be taken seriously, not only because it is the product of six months of reflection (as early as October 2013, the party had launched a website inviting suggestions from citizens for drafting it), but also because of what it does not say. If the party could wait for the first day of polling to make it public, an unprecedented move suggesting that voters did not need to know the programme of the main contender for power to make up their mind, it is not only because its leaders did not want to tie their hands in case of victory, but also because they did not have concrete policies to propose — or preferred to remain vague on that front in order to emphasise their political agenda.

The paradox is difficult to ignore, even though thinktanks (which are supposed to be policy-oriented) have not noticed it. The BJP, like most of its supporters, generally considers that India has been badly affected by the “decision and policy paralysis” of the UPA, as the party manifesto says. In contrast, it claims, the “hallmarks” of its “governance model” would be, among other things, “policy driven”.

Indeed, “policy”, usually with a capital “P”, is one of the words most frequently used by the authors of this “programme”: “BJP will initiate the New Health Policy”, the BJP will “re-visit the policy framework for investments both foreign and domestic to make them more conducive”, “BJP will adopt a ‘National Land Use Policy’”, the BJP will “Come out with a responsible and comprehensive ‘National Energy Policy’”, “We will set in place national policies on critical natural resources like coal, minerals, spectrum etc — spelling out in black and white how much should be utilised at what time and space”.

The BJP is obviously eager to implement clear-cut policies, and that’s what India needs, for sure. But shouldn’t citizens know, “in black and white”, what these policies will be before casting their vote? That’s largely what democracy is about, after all. And that’s where the BJP manifesto is not meeting the expectations of those who make the effort to read its 52 pages. Most of it is made up of demagogic incantations. For instance, the BJP commits itself to “a comprehensive strategy for bringing the Indian police at par with international standards”, which is definitely a good intention, but how would its government achieve this goal?

The “BJP is committed to initiate electoral reforms to eliminate criminals”, but which ones (I mean which policies)? Using an even more emotional overtone, the manifesto explains that the BJP “will not only empower our citizens with the ability to dream; we will enable them with the capability to actualise their dreams”. For that, many formulae are mobilised. Let’s look at the way the manifesto deals with the rural and the urban questions, for instance. On one hand, “Through the idea of Rurban, we will bring amenities to our rural areas, while retaining the soul of the village”, and on the other “We will initiate building 100 new cities; enabled with the latest in technology and infrastructure — adhering to concepts like sustainability, walk to work etc”. To reform hundreds of thousands of villages and to build dozens of cities, “ideas” and “concepts” may not be sufficient.

The 52 pages are thin on statistics. Apart from the growth rate of India under the UPA, which is presented as 4.8 per cent, when it is at least 2 percentage points higher on an average, the only other statistic put forward is the share of the GDP that the BJP government would devote to education — 6 per cent, a rather timid target.

If the BJP election manifesto does not say much about what the party would do if it was in a position to govern India, its silences are sometimes very telling. Its treatment of the corruption issue is a case in point. The “Corruption” section of the manifesto is only a few lines long. It explains that the BJP “will establish a system which eliminates the scope for corruption” through “public awareness” (but the mass demonstrations of 2011 have shown that people were rather aware of the problem), “technology-enabled e-governance”, “system-based, policy-driven governance”, “rationalisation and simplification of the tax regime” and “simplification of the processes and procedures at the state levels”.

Such recipes call to mind the recommendations of the World Bank in the 1980s, when it basically told India to get rid of the licence raj to make corruption vanish. It has flourished instead. Interestingly, the only reference to the Lokpal is to be found in another section, and even then it is minimal: “We will set-up an effective Lokpal institution”. How? The attitude of the BJP in the Delhi state assembly in February this year does not help us respond to this question, nor does the fact that, before last December, Gujarat had not had a Lokayukta for 10 years.

But the most puzzling paradox lies elsewhere. While the BJP does not say how it will concretely change India, it is committed to “total change” and uses a phrase Mao Zedong coined in the 1950s: the “Leap Forward”. How do you change totally, if not through policies? Through politics! The first and last sections of the BJP manifesto are the most enlightening in this regard. The foreword by Murli Manohar Joshi emphasises that the “multi-dimensional crisis” in which India finds itself requires “urgent solutions” — among these, the most pressing is “to arrive at a consensus about the ‘Idea’ of India”. The need of the hour is to “Pick up the thread from the point where the continuum of our civilisational consciousness was lost and reorient the polity in consonance with those strong points of Indian psyche which will be the engine for our future glory”.

For understanding what the mainstays of this “innate vitality” are, the reader has to wait for the section on “Cultural heritage”, starting with the evocation of the Ram Mandir, where the “BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya”. The other structure that has been demolished there may need to be rebuilt too, but there is no reference to it, even though the manifesto has one section on the need to promote “equal opportunity” for minorities and to “Curate their rich heritage and culture — maintenance and restoration of heritage sites; digitisation of archives; preservation and promotion of Urdu”. Some cultural heritages seem to be more equal than others.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace