Polling in the general elections opens on April 7, and voters in the first phase will usher in the day with no clue about the BJP’s manifesto.
The party, which has launched a spectacularly high-pitched and lengthy campaign centred on its prime-ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, was already cutting it fine when it had scheduled the release date for April 3.
In the event, there was no document and no coherent explanation for the delay. All that appeared to be clear in the cacophony of waffling by party spokespersons was that the manifesto will now be in the public domain on Monday. The BJP is obviously hoping to ride out this lapse by presuming a heightened, and possibly realistic, level of cynicism among voters about the utility and necessity of an election manifesto. But the episode has put its bid for power in an unflattering light.
It is true that manifestos tend to be utopian documents, and the cheery and noble promises they make are mostly reissued in the next election. That is why comparing a political party’s current manifesto with that from the previous election often yields a sameness of agenda. There is also the assumption that voters glean the candidate’s or her party’s agenda from her campaign rhetoric, taking the manifesto to be a mere formality. Therefore, a manifesto does not usually grab attention in pre-poll debates. It is not seen to make enough of a statement. However, the absence of a manifesto, or its delay to the actual date of polling, makes a statement so loud that to ignore it would need Indian democracy to be tone-deaf. In fact, with its delay, the BJP reminds us of the crucial importance of a party manifesto.
Because a manifesto can be more than the promises it makes — though they are, of course, greatly significant. It can be more than a checklist. It can be seen as a testament to the coherence of the party’s worldview, campaign, ideology even, to a framework of ideas and principles. It conveys the ethos that a voter may reasonably expect will guide the party, should it take power or sit in the opposition.
The BJP leadership cannot avert the task of explaining the no-show so far, especially in a campaign launched unusually early with the adoption of Modi as its prime-ministerial hopeful back in September 2013.