By Charudutta Panigrahi
In the largest ever polls, expected to attract over 1.5 million voters to choose their government in the world’s biggest, functional democracy, it is time to reflect on the rigmarole of a party manifesto.
In 1848 the “Manifesto of the Communist party” was produced for a revolutionary Europe. It contained the view of history that it was a prolonged class struggle which would end with the triumph of the proletariat. Significantly, it proposed ten major policies or Big Ideas which have held considerable sway in Europe ever since. At least the ideas still continue to influence thoughts and actions to some extent, it does not matter whichever party espouses them.
But what about manifestos drawn up as an imbecile ritual. No meaning of a manifesto, no one reads it, no one remembers any promises or “vision” and everyone remembers it only once in a while, when there are elections.
Manifestos have become tragic charades, which have become the unnecessary ingredients of elections, these days in our country. It is an irony. The more educated youth come to politics, the more media sensitive we have all become, the more reach of media and debates, the more vocal we have all become, the more “manifestos” have been neglected. They are treated like the extra mule on your expedition, carrying your load. It is not required, but if it there the cavalcade looks good.
In the hurly burly of realpolitik, the manifesto is left far behind. Could be because our politics is bereft of any concerted, strategic developmental agenda. It is more like the Bollywood movies of the nineties – chase the formula which clicks, do not experiment, be safe.
With so much talked and anticipated about the new youthful movements in the political horizon of the country, how many parties have engaged the youths in serious research to come out with an innovative, need based, assessment based, developmental vision. None. Apparently they need not. How many voters vote on the basis of the programs or agenda of a political party? The number is less, even today, with the plethora of sensitization programs all around.
Manifestos have stopped being the “key propositions” to secure votes. The voter is still one in a herd. The general mood/swing matters more than a scientific analysis, feature-wise. It is unprecedented for a national party to fail to formulate its poll promise document till the start of actual polling.
But in the 2014 hustings, we have seen that many parties, mainstream national parties delayed in releasing their manifestos. This virtually means that on the first day of the poll seven constituencies in Assam and Tripura which have voted, the voters relied on the speeches of the leaders to form any idea of what the party intends to provide if it wins. Or would they have done this at all? Many think that it is all the trend, the peer pressure rather than an analysis of the promises.
Sociologist Dipankar Gupta, Director of The Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory at Shiv Nadar University, believes that manifestoes are merely a debating point among journalists and politicians.
“Voters in India do not vote on the basis of commitments in manifestoes, they follow the mood,” he says.
Are manifestos meant only for animated TV chat shows? Probably he has a point.
The Bahujan Samaj Party for example has never released a manifesto. Accusing rival parties of not fulfilling even 50% of their poll promises, BSP did not release a manifesto ahead of this Lok Sabha elections as it believes in doing work rather than “shouting about it”.
Is it that even today most of the voters in our country vote on the basis of caste, creed, religion, region, and not ideas. If yes then it is ominous. With ever increasing media spotlights, promotions and the swelling reach, rise in literacy levels, rise in income levels and standards of living, we expect voters to analyse more and cast their valuable votes. But do we handhold them and help them in analyzing. Are options ever discussed?
Mostly it is mud-slinging, high decibel rabble rousing that we have in the name of discussions. Most recent surveys are projecting party(s) which is expected to form the next government, but scarcely are their agenda discussed in detail. Corporate honchos, investors, householders are keen to understand what sort of reforms the party has planned on the economic front. But many leaders, cutting across party lines are convinced that these documents don’t change the fortunes of political parties and that the voters know what the leaders stand for. This is a presumption undermining the discernment of the common voter.
In most of the cases, after elections, parties shelve their agendas for alliances, and their poll promises ring hollow. The ideology is ditched because it becomes the all-encompassing “coalition dharma” after the elections. India, the world’s biggest democracy by size of voters, still has a long way to go to make political parties accountable for their promises. To add to our woes, unfortunately, in India these poll documents do not have any legal sanctity. But in other mature democracies, both voters and parties take them very seriously.
In the UK, the norm is that the issues committed to in manifestoes cannot be contested in the Upper House, if it is duly cleared by the Lower House. Similarly in the US the voters regularly question their leaders on manifestoes during debates.
“But in India you don’t have such provisions,” says UK’s labour party veteran Lord Meghnad Desai. “In India people are pretending to follow the West. But the problem is that the structures of political parties are such, you find that manifestoes of most of the political parties are the same,” says Desai. “In political structures, the parties have top to bottom approach, the parties are not membership oriented,” he remarks.
In cadre based parties also, the manifestos are accorded the least importance. In none of the party meetings is the agenda or the development plans ever discussed. In fact many party bosses perceive this as a futile exercise, which never translates to hard votes or simply is not required. All that they are worried about is winning elections, not winning elections on concrete target based, well researched, need based scheme of activities.
Many have told me, sounding confident that the voters are never inquisitive about the agendas nor do they take the manifestos and the promises therein as important parameters for the selection of their choice. This is flagrant underestimation of the voter’s decision making process. If the electorates are properly and consistently educated about the agendas, I am sure they would be much better disposed to choose their representatives.
Things are improving. The latest trend is that the political parties are increasingly moved to a system of “localised” manifestoes for the 2014 general election. This is a significant move that began with Delhi election campaign where party(s) released local manifestoes for each assembly constituency.
Leaders are realizing the inevitability of making manifesto preparation a participatory process. This has to happen because we as a country are metamorphing fast into a “federal spirit”, with the states’ issues and administrations gaining immense power and vitality. Central agenda would hold less meaning in the days to come.Coalition politics is here to stay. Local specificities can’t be ignored any more.
What is also worth noting is the fact that the Election Commission of India has recently started regulating election manifestoes under its Model Code of Conduct pursuant to a Supreme Court judgement. It has stated that election manifestoes should explain the “rationale” for its proposals and how these proposals will be funded.
These welcome developments, (a) the localization of manifestoes, and (b) the regulation of manifestoes are significant markers for electoral democracy in India. Indian political parties seem to be involving the electorate directly in the preparation of manifestoes, and paying greater attention to their voices. They cannot avoid this if they have to stay relevant.
This is a marked departure from a process where traditionally a group of leaders would discuss and determine the content of the manifesto. Gone are the days of broad based, umbrella slogans like Garibi Hatao or India Shining. Now India is younger, more literate, more urbanized, more connected and networked and the decision making process is more target and impact oriented. It is no more, ambivalent, obdurate, laced with high platitudes of bombastic and vacuous headlines, thankfully.
The faster the political parties realize this, the better it is for them and the country.
And honestly do you think manifestos are as redundant as they are made out to be?
*Gurgaon-based Charudutta Panigrahi is the chairman of FIDR adn a commentator on social and political issues. He may be contacted at charu