Elections bring promises. Promises beget aspirations. Aspirations blossom into expectations after a party comes into Government. Expectations largely contort into dejection for voters. With the two largest parties bringing out their manifestos, without forgetting the idealistic picture they intend to project, it is important to look into whether these 2 pieces of paper are actually worth the paper they are written on. Are the promises practical? Do they recognise the crux of the problems that besot India? Whether the solutions they give are incremental or radical? Obviously, the parties do not lack expertise, but does expertise translate into sensible policy? I shall delve into a running commentary on a few issues.
The Congress starts off with the promise of protecting existing jobs and facilitating new ones. Its main solution is when it promises to fill up 4 lakh vacancies in Government; a choice that will lead to, especially with the existing 7th Pay Commission, a huge burden on the fiscal deficit. Congress itself mentions this when it says that “the revenue deficit will be contained, as far as possible, under 1 per cent of GDP” (page 19). Not even close to being possible. It is hard balancing increasing Government jobs with macro-economic stability. However, for a situation to occur, where a bulky Government, inundated with innumerable employees, has to make lay-offs (or reduce money from important measures) due to an unsustainable deficit will be even worse. Congress goes for overkill. There is a reason why “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance” was a success. Inexorably, automation and digitisation will make Government jobs smaller. To artificially inflate the Government’s size, to spend hard-earned tax-payer money on people who might benefit from skill development, would be better.
Next, the Congress, correctly identifies that MSME’s definition must be towards employment instead of capital. “I employ x number of people” is much better and truer a reflection of a small business than “I invest x amount in plant and machinery“. Commendable. It also promises a Tourism Development Bank to promote tourism, a desperately needed measure since tourism is booming.
On pages 13 and 14, a political jibe appears as the party wants “to do a quick review of the rules and regulations made by the BJP Government in the last 5 years and repeal as many of them as are necessary to free industry and business from the ‘Control Raj'”. If the Congress was paying any attention, it’s removing regulations that the BJP has been obsessed with. Take a glance at the Ease of Doing Business reports. More importantly, Congress would do well to remove ALL unnecessary regulations, lest they forget who instituted the Licence-Permit-Quota Raj.
On infrastructure, the Congress is right. India is clamouring for massive investment into its highways, roads, bridges, railways and wastewater plants. However, its proposal for having directly elected mayors seems contentious. Elected mayors may sound reformative, but, it misses the more pertinent issue of how to wrest control by state Governments from municipalities, politically and financially. What happens when a mayor is from the CPI but the state government is the BJP as happened in Himachal Pradesh? Is a Presidential system better than a Parliamentary system for local governments? Will it ensure an accountable face in cities? Yes. Will that exclusively led to better governance? No.
The Congress rightly talks about reforming the Essential Commodities Act, APMC Acts, digitisation of land records etc. It extends MGNREGA to 150 days. The system of wage distribution, which is largely swallowed by the middle-man must also be reformed. The biggest self-proclaimed trump card it has is its minimum income guarantee scheme i.e. the NYAY Scheme. Forget about the fact that Government debt-to-GDP is over 60%. Forget about the fact that this scheme will basically ensure higher direct and indirect taxes on people who will not benefit from this scheme. Forget the fact that subsidies will have to, not might be, reduced or “rationalised”. Forget that not every poor has a bank account. Forget that it will not help the lower-middle class. Forget it will be heavily inflationary and might raise the fiscal deficit from below 3.5 % to 7%-8%. Even disregard that the beneficiaries are identified on just the outdated and wrongly defining (poverty based on assets not income) SECC 2011 census. The scheme is intended, but should not be uniform. A poor person in Kochi is not the same level as a poor person in Ranchi. Its implementation is vague, since it is intended to be a pilot first.
The Congress’s promise to abolish the e-way bill (page 22), an anti-corruption mechanism for inter-state goods over Rs. 50,000, and rely solely on “risk management mechanism and strengthening the intelligence machinery” is vague and uncertain. Not good for business or logistics. When it promises increasing expenditure on science to 2% of GDP as well as creating a patent pool, that seems commendable and much needed.
The promise of scrapping the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is nonsensical. Citizenship to persecuted minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists and Christians) in Muslim majority countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh is important, but, must be balanced by not dishonouring the Assam Accord. Assam and other North-Eastern states must not share the majority of the burden of these refugees. These minorities must be signalled that they have a home in India, which is truly secular. The Congress, in placating North-East sentiments, is looking the other way when atrocities against minorities in our neighbourhood takes place. Even worse, on the NRC, it is hazy. Nothing less than weeding out illegal immigration should do, in my opinion. What of a country’s sovereignty, of fairness to legal immigrants and our own citizens, if everyone, including non-persecuted illegal immigrants, get citizenship? Double-standards.
The Congress is 100% right in their answer to the question of whether defamation is a crime or not? It is not. Change the law. No democracy can afford to supersede a person’s reputation in front of free speech. However, another law they intend to amend is the sedition law. Whilst it is asinine to say that the freedom to offend must not be present, it is critical if people, in their disagreement, stoke separatist sentiments or if they attack the idea of India, not the Government. True, the law has been misused, but changing the law is rather dim. Even AFSPA, which is promised at being “reviewed”, I am sure will be opposed by the forces. That law is not even misused as much as the Public Safety Act. AFSPA must be removed from central areas and must, if possible, be exclusive to border areas which are usually disturbed areas. Removing laws versus ensuring they are not misused is an important line the Congress is missing.
The amendment to include the prohibition of discrimination against disability has been a long time coming. A good move to end discrimination against people with physical and mental handicaps. The Congress talks about amending the Anti-Defection Law for instant disqualification if a member does not obey the whip. Really? I have written at length about the need to abolish this farcical provision. It also plans to introduce a law for hate crimes. Although I believe, for hate crimes, existing laws are stringent enough, I only hope this law is vastly different from its Communal Violence Bill.
Lastly, politically, the Congress promises to review the Rafale Deal (page 33). What it will find that the Supreme Court or CAG did not, I do not know; what it will definitely do is deter people from doing defence deals in India. Likewise, politically, when it talks about investigating people who defrauded the country, it forgets these people got loans under their regime. On the whole, it seems like a mixed bag of trying to promise everything under the sun. Some good, others not thought through.
The BJP’s manifesto, while devoid of any “big-bang” ideas, is largely a continuation of its existing ideas spread over their 5 years. They start with talking about a zero tolerance to terrorism approach. Largely similar to the Congress’ claim, what distinguishes the BJP now is that it will not waver from responding back. More interestingly, unlike the Congress, it promises to enact a Model Police Act. This has been a reform since the 1970s. Commission after commission has suggested this. To de-politicise the police and hold it accountable is beyond exigent.
The BJP promises, much like the Congress, to increase the working conditions of forces at the border (construction of roads, welfare etc.). Good. Thankfully, the BJP, unlike the Congress, promises to not only repeal Article 370 and end its “special status”, it will also repeal Article 35-A which is discriminatory to say the least. Used by Indians to discriminate against Indians. I have written about this extensively. Should it not be the case that an Article, which was inserted through an order, not a law, and is plainly discriminatory, must go?
It wants to implement the Citizenship Amendment Bill. In terms of national security, there is no doubt who is stronger. The BJP amends its farm crop insurance scheme to make it voluntary, not mandatory. This scheme has been ineffective and this change will do nothing to ensure the high premiums of the insurance companies subside.
The BJP remains committed to building 60,000 kilometres in the next 5 years. Its current record, which is genuinely impressive, if continues has the opportunity to transform rural India. Unfortunately, on GST, it still does not want to include petroleum, real-estate or electricity. This is a low-hanging fruit affirmed by both parties and should not have been excluded. Despite starting a committee to look into direct taxes, the BJP does not talk about the Direct Taxes Code (DTC), unlike the Congress who does.
The BJP also recommits to Article 44 – a Uniform Civil Code. In a country with huge diversity; a UCC should look sensible when a country is subjected to the same criminal laws, it must be, to the same civil ones. It’s a different matter as to what the UCC would look like as there has never been a draft, but, more importantly, there must be political consensus on this matter.
Both parties do not offer any radical transformation in our labour or land laws. Apart from the desirable goal of digitisation of land records, there should have been a vision on how labour and laws must be changed to balance urbanisation and commercialisation, with protecting the marginalised.
The BJP promises more arbitration centres which might make the judicial burden lesser. Speaking of the judiciary, they seem to have left out the NJAC Act, which, the Congress actually has implemented. Surprising to see why, since the BJP (with the Congress) passed the Bill, which was later ruled unconstitutional, unfairly so, in my opinion.
Why the BJP chooses to include simultaneous elections is beyond me. It is not the right approach to deal with incessant elections, or their . At best, a legitimate case, based on consensus, could be made to create a mid-term elections. Where one phase happens in April-May (general elections) and one in October-November within 2 years. It also, in foreign policy has an ambitious goal to get a UNSC Permanent Membership. Although it can be debated how effective the UN is, or whether it is possible to get a membership, this Government’s track record of getting India into the SCO, MTCR and the Wassenaar Arrangement is rather impressive.
Overall, a sedate incumbent. Its best aspect is that it does not over-promise or try to exorbitantly attract. It is confident in its schemes and seeks to get back into Government on the back of its existing schemes, with an exponential push on those schemes.
Manifestos are ideal. They try to project a vision of the country and what you would do with power in your hands. I have problems with both, but both offer a whole host of things to their core supporters whilst being wide enough to attract voters. Instead of balancing the line, I readily admit I am clearly allured towards the BJP’s pragmatism over the Congress’ exercise in extravaganza, however, manifestos, like rhetoric, work well in theatrics and not so much in governance, where impatience and flip-flopping come to bite the party back.