The major political parties have all released their manifestos for the parliamentary elections. Each manifesto represents the political angst of the parties — the repentant tone of the Congress, the assertive stance of the BJP, the negotiated compromise of the SP as it aligns with the BSP and RLD, the hesitant political ideology of the CPM, and the brash declarations of the TMC. Amid long declarations of intent that range from foreign policy to the rights of children, each party promises governance that seeks to alleviate all our national problems. What none of the parties tells us is how they would themselves subscribe to the norms of democracy — how would they uphold the rule of law, and check the ongoing spread of the culture of impunity?
In their political enunciations that relate to specific policies, institutions, programmes and allocations, they overlook the democratic processes and commitment that must emanate from the parties themselves to ethics, accountability, transparency, and engagement with people. Persons with criminal records (who constitute 34 per cent of the 16th Lok Sabha according to the ADR reports), continue to be big political players and yet none of the parties commits to identifying and supporting worthy candidates who would be above the charges of corruption, violence and criminality.
In their pronouncements, the Congress and BJP face the challenge of performing an economic balancing act — of creating wealth and also alleviating poverty. How will the wide range of social welfare and income transfer schemes and subsidies be delivered without regulating private and capital interests?
Although it was the CPM that mobilised farmers across the nation and tabled agrarian distress to become a national issue, their enunciations for the rural and agricultural sectors are largely broad-based and without attention to detail. The Congress and BJP, on the other hand, offer a plethora of sops and incentives that make it seem like they would put the kisan back on the centrestage of national development. The BJP seems to be toeing the RSS’s line and asserts its Hindutva agenda through proclamations that a temple will be built in Ayodhya, a common civil code implemented, and Article 370 abrogated. Focusing on making India a deeply defence heavy state, the BJP is silent about the AFSPA, while the CPI asserts it will scrap it and the Congress assures that it will be reviewed. Seeking to appease the small traders who were burnt by demonetisation and GST, the BJP promises to establish a national traders’ welfare board, a national policy for retail trade and credit cards for merchants.
All parties seem blind to the declining quality of education even as all promise the expansion of educational institutions, and the BJP dreams of a “University for Foreign Policy”, which we can assume will have Narendra Modi’s foreign visits as their texts! And to hide its shame of the Rafale deal, perhaps, it proclaims a “Made in India in Defence” initiative.
The Congress, BJP and SP-BSP-RLD promise a flood of supply-side incentives that include income support, support for pregnant women, farm loan waivers, midday meals, scholarships, free laptops, pensions, housing, and even subsidised sanitary napkins. And yet, the foundational premises of assuring functioning and equal access public institutions and equality of opportunities (through access to resources and to education) are largely missing.
As a result, what is emerging is an unusual form of competitive populism that seeks to render citizens into supplicants who in exchange for their votes will receive a range of goods. That such transactions have not only political and economic costs but also social implications is not reckoned with. The rise of a new class of political entrepreneurs who mediate between the political/administrative system and the masses and who in many ways now distort the very possibilities of democracy is only one of these concerns.
Similarly, none of the parties takes a position against mega-projects (dams, high-speed rails, statues) which have been the source of mega corruption and the degradation of the environment. Although climate change trends have now reached emergency conditions and India is, and will be, one of the most adversely affected regions, all the manifestos indicate how little attention is paid to this by the various parties. While credit must be given to the Congress for recognising and citing climate change in the context of environmental and natural disaster issues, it provides no details as to how it will be addressed in all the key sectors (which is what is required), the BJP only mentions it, the TMC endorses the Paris Agreement, and the CPM completely overlooks it.
Missing in all the manifestos are alternative imaginaries for social, economic and political justice and rights that would enable a viable democracy. Each fails to address the dark shadows cast on the nation by those who have become victims of the failure of the state to assure the right to a life of dignity and well-being: The cleaners who have suffocated to death in drains and man holes; Rohith Vemula and the injustice within educational institutions; the brutalised child victim at Kathua; all the farmers who have committed suicides; the victims of demonetisation, the farmers at Mandsaur who fell to police bullets, and the stifled rights of Sudha Bharadwaj and other activists who now languish in jail. In each of these, we have been witness to the erosion of democratic norms, the dilution and distortion of constitutional values, and the denial of the basic rights of citizens.
In contrast to these political platitudes, whose content and intent are all debatable, there are now manifestos by various organisations such as those by the Safai Karamchari Aandolan and “Reclaiming the Republic” by a range of activists. It is perhaps these that should be the guiding posts to addressing our myriad problems and also realising the potential of a plural India.
The writer is a social anthropologist based in Karnataka