Election 2019: In the Era of Social Media Optics, Is the Political Party Manifesto Redundant?

Politics

Election 2019: In the Era of Social Media Optics, Is the Political Party Manifesto Redundant?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In an editorial for Hindustan Times last May, Varun Gandhi demanded that political parties be held accountable for their election manifestos. “In India, nobody really reads manifestos. The manifesto rarely impresses voters or helps parties swing voters — it has transformed into an intellectual and ideological exercise at best,” he writes in the op-ed. Aside from the irony that op-eds are probably as scarcely read as manifestos and are often similarly intellectual exercises in inconsequentiality, Gandhi raised a point, however vain. The manifesto is a good advertisement for exaggerations and promised virtual realities, a political party’s ideology at a certain “moment”.

Because parties, like manifestos, change from time to time often cutting across lines they themselves drew in the first place. Political manifestos in India have as long a history of contradiction as they have of ineffectiveness when it comes to being decisive in the final vote, its sole concern on most occasions.

On Monday, the Bharatiya Janata Party released its manifesto for the 2019 elections almost a week after the Congress released its own. The ruling party’s document is predictably built around the national security pitch in a post-Pulwama India, while the Congress’ was more liberal than a post-7pm gathering at the Press Club of India in Lutyens’ Delhi. But while both might be good literature (if you overlook the typos in the BJP manifesto), scooping emotion from gaudy adjectives, manifestos are hardly anything other than an excuse to garner momentary attention.

Manifesto

The BJP’s 2019 manifesto makes no mention of the job crisis.

Image Credits: Getty Images

It is perhaps slightly cogent than an election speech and better prepped than a prime-time interview. But in essence the election manifesto is as significant as anything written on the inside of a chocolate wrapper. Far from accountability, manifestos have, over the years, become flaccid signifiers of a political party’s intentions that more than anything else are meant to draw media attention than attract voters and commit to their review.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

The Janata Party’s manifesto for the 1977 elections, for example, was as much a document of repair as it was of reflexive politics.

Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto from 1848 is one of the world’s most important documents. In India too, there have been manifestos that have adequately captured the political climate and are highly significant. The Janata Party’s manifesto for the 1977 elections, for example, was as much a document of repair as it was of reflexive politics. It made for plain reading – “lift Emergency” and “re-establish rule of law” were some of its first priorities. In its economic programme section, the manifesto pithily mentioned “environmental care”.
Contrast this to 1951 when the Bharatiya Janasangh (part of the Janata Party government) was formed with an eight-point manifesto that was far more ideological. It spoke of a single “Bharatiya culture” and advocated a nation built around “Bharatiya sanskriti and maryada” while declaring Pakistan a clear enemy. The Janata Party was eventually dissolved but its legacy continues to be carried forward by parties like the BJP with its promises of a Hindu Rashtra. The 2019 manifesto reiterates the party’s stand on Ram Mandir. “We will explore all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution and all necessary efforts to facilitate the expeditious construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya,” it says. In 2014, it promised something similar.

The Congress has been no different. It hasn’t held back on altering and editing its priorities according to the landscape either. In its manifesto from 1996, their secularism pitch was clearly spelt out. Today, it is muddled and tentative. After the BJP portrayed Congress as a “Muslim party”, Rahul Gandhi & Co have treaded carefully. “The Congress now no longer talks of ‘Muslims’ – much like 2014, the word isn’t mentioned even once in its 2019 manifesto. Religious minorities have been clubbed along with linguistic minorities,” a Business Standard report points out. However, that hasn’t stopped the party from hitting out against the BJP for its treatment of minorities when on paper they do not want to take any responsibility of them either. In the 1996 manifesto, Congress promised a Lokpal and we know what has happened to that idea since. The concept of an anti-corruption ombudsman has been around for 50 years, but it was finally enacted as a law in 2013 ironically after Anna Hazare started a movement against corruption during the UPA rule.

Manifesto

In the 1996 manifesto, Congress promised a Lokpal and we know what has happened to that idea since.

Image Credits: Getty Images

But political doublespeak has been the order of the day when it comes to manifestos. The CPI-M’s 2014 manifesto attacked the incumbent Congress on its unemployment numbers but in the 30-odd years of ruling Bengal the party oversaw the exodus of industries outright. On most occasions manifestos are written or designed to draw mileage from public sentiment, and at other times they are written in fear of it – BJP made no mention of demonetisation, cashless economy, or black money in its latest manifesto. In 2014, with the promise of “Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas”, the BJP said they would focus on employment. In his rallies, the PM promised to create one crore jobs. However, India’s unemployment rate reportedly rose to a 45-year high during 2017-2018. But the BJP’s 2019 manifesto makes no mention of the job crisis.

In between, there is perhaps little that is as intentional as it is accurate. Over the years, manifestos have only become more complicated, with inaccessible numbers and data serving as the fog we must be expected to walk through as voters. The fact is that manifestos are intellectual vanities thrown at privileged citizens who like to consider the letter as crucial as the leap. To that effect, most political parties fight and are eventually elected on the illusion of the former rather than the delivery of the latter.
The Election Commission has in place a set of polite guidelines that political parties are required to follow while drafting manifestos. But rather than, like Varun Gandhi, hopelessly wonder why the document cannot be turned into something vital against which a party can then be analysed or reviewed, we’d be served better by questioning the integrity and existence of this pointless document on our own. It is like a good book that will never faithfully be adapted to film. Not because it cannot be, but because it was written, destined for un-fulfillment.

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