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Opinion

Manifestos and Indian elections

The choice between the AAP, the BJP and the Congress is far from a real substantial choice.

Last updated: 15 Apr 2014 08:09
Irfan Ahmad

Irfan Ahmad is Associate Professor of Political Anthropology at Australian Catholic University, Melbourne and author of Islamism and Democracy in India, which was short-listed for the 2011 International Convention of Asian Scholars Book Prize for the field of Social Sciences.
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Elections are being held in nine phases from April 7 until May 12 [AFP]

This article analyses the manifestos of the parties which matter in India’s elections. It is my contention that there are more similarities than differences in various manifestos. Minor differences that exist hardly make a substantial difference thereby eliminating politics by installing nude policy.

The Manifest and the Latent

A manifesto means a document of intention and plan, also giving clues to how a party views politics. Its aim, however, is to convert voters to a specific party. Elected to power, no party has ever delivered one hundred percent what it had promised in a manifesto. At times, a party elected to power may also flout what it had promised. Importantly, everything is not manifest in a manifesto for things remain latent. The latent becomes manifest not in a manifesto but in mobilisations where unsaid is as important as the contexts in which things are said.

Three parties with a pan-India appeal are: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (Congress). The main contest is between BJP and the ruling Congress party. The AAP is a new party, known for its opposition to corruption. Since last year its urban appeal has widened to emerge as a significant pan-India force, fielding its candidates in 385 of the 543 constituencies.

 

The Similarities

Comparing manifestos of these parties one is struck by their similarities. The differences among them are minor and more in modalities and degrees, less so in the substance of politics. Consider similarities first.

Economy

The AAP, the BJP and the Congress all promise new jobs: the AAP and the BJP promise “millions of jobs”, the Congress does “100 millions” (all quotes from the respective manifestos). All three parties present no alternative to a free market economy. Given the known positions of the Congress and the BJP on economy, only AAP was expected to offer an alternative.

However, the AAP doesn’t. It simply wishes to “clean” the economy that already exists. It opposes a tiny branch of capitalism, “crony capitalism”. AAP’s economy is “neither Left nor Right” but “in the interest of India”. This resembles the “Third Way” of former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and Anthony Giddens, a British sociologist.

India's Prime Minister Singh and Chief of India's ruling Congress party Gandhi holds their party's election manifesto in [Reuters]

They all favour entrepreneurs and businesses with minimum government regulations. To the BJP, the regulations signify “tax terrorism” (BJP admits that the state also enacts terror because tax is imposed by the state). AAP adds “honest” before businesses. “Black money” they all oppose.

Each party promises to fight corruption and price rise. They all endorse public-private partnership in economy. They stand for health to all. The words are same: “quality healthcare”. The promise of education to all is also common.

Over 90 percent of workforce is in unorganised sector where the poor struggle for their daily lives. No party structurally aims to better their lot. The AAP, which claims to be a common man’s party, shows its utter elitism when it promises to fight contractualisation of teachers, doctors and so on but says little about the unorganised sector except “to regularise their working condition and space”.

The AAP, the BJP and the Congress promise to improve the working condition of the poor multitude without questioning the very violent systemic condition which produces the poor. Moreover, the poor are not an end in themselves but a bare means to India’s rise.

All the three parties promise food security, the difference is merely in semantics.

Social Groups

The AAP, the BJP and the Congress also bear similarities vis-à-vis various social groups. All champion the cause of the Other Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. Supporting the reservations of these groups in public sector, the AAP and the Congress promise more. BJP doesn’t mention reservation implying it to be “tokenism”. It claims to combine “social justice” and “harmony”. They all promise to ensure safety to and non-discrimination against women. They all support 33 percent reservation for women in Parliament and state Assemblies.

International Relations and Security

Though articulations vary, sentiments of what the BJP calls the “resurgent India” and her “rightful place in the comity of nations” are common. Embracing neo-realism, the BJP aims to orient foreign policy “through pragmatism” and “enlightened national interests” to achieve “one India, superior India”, a slogan that is manifesto’s title. The Congress party promises to get India’s permanent membership to the UN Security Council. Is it not demeaning for world’s largest democracy to join the exclusive, undemocratic Security Council of the powerful states rather than demand its democratisation for the world? How can the Congress’ claim for an “inclusive vision” be serious when it aspires to be exclusive?

Delhi's former chief minister and Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal (C), hold their party's manifesto [Reuters]

The AAP shares the idea of a resurgent India and believes in “supplementing India’s meaningful engagements with the US” with the conglomerates of the states like BRICS and IBSA. The AAP and the Congress mention China in relation to border disputes; stressing continued trade relations between the two. No “non-emerging” country of Latin America or Africa is mentioned in the AAP’s manifesto.

They all invoke “cross-border terrorism” and vow to combat it. Whereas the BJP and the Congress name Pakistan, the AAP doesn’t. The AAP and the BJP reiterate that “Kashmir is an integral part” of India.

Note that what is integral is Kashmir, not Kashmiris.

The BJP and the Congress share the hegemonic discourse on terrorism, the former committed to the “uniform international opinion on issues like terrorism and global warming”. For the BJP, terrorism is science the way global warming is and, therefore, the opinion must be “uniform”, not multiple. Why should democracies central to which is plurality of views have a “uniform” opinion on terrorism?

To fight terrorism, the BJP and the Congress stress heightening of intelligence and coordination among the state agencies. To this, the AAP adds addressing the “root causes of citizens’ disaffection” and humanising draconian laws. The BJP and the Congress speak of peace and war in the same breadth.

Given that India is “world’s largest importer of weapons”, the AAP, the BJP and the Congress all call for “indigenous” production of weapons and war technology. Is there no tension between the longing for indigenisation of weapons of mass violence and simultaneous chanting of non-violence which the AAP extends to animals? Why there is no discussion on indigenisation of life-saving medicine due to which millions die or agricultural seeds that contributed to thousands of suicide by farmers?

The Differences

The apparent key differences relate to: 1) construction of Ram Temple over the site of the Babri Masjid illegally demolished by the BJP and its allies, 2) abrogating the article 370 which makes special provisions to Kashmir, 3) passage of Uniform Civil Code (aimed, inter alia, at replacing the Muslim Personal Law), and 4) legislation to “protect and promote cow”. These issues figure in BJP’s manifesto under the title “cultural heritage” (as if they are not political).

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), BJP President Rajnath Singh (2nd L), party leaders hold copies of election manifesto [Reuters]

That these issues don’t figure in AAP’s or Congress’ manifestos don’t mean they necessarily oppose them. As it was evident and the investigative website Cobrapost confirms it, the plan for Babri Masjid’s demolition was known to the then Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao (and top leaders) who belonged to the Congress.

The Congress allegedly acted in favour of the demolition by not acting against those who it knew would demolish the 16th century mosque. With planned erasure of the mosque from visual public sphere, does the construction of Ram temple look remote? Though AAP doesn’t state it clearly, some may interpret its statement on Animal Welfare to justify cow protection.

The Congress occasionally and non-antagonistically reprimands the BJP on these issues. So does the AAP.

However, it is one thing to publicly disapprove of the BJP, quite another to launch an honest ideological movement against it.

Why is it that of the 17 questions AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal posed to Narendra Modi, none pertained to the 2002 pogrom against Muslims under Modi’s rule in Gujarat? Is it a mere coincidence that the lives of over 50,000 Muslims terrorised to live in camps in Muzaffarnagar in the wake of communal violence last year are not an election issue for the three parties?

Why does the AAP define corruption predominantly in financial terms to exclude planned violence by the so-called civil society outfits and the role of authorities in that violence? What politics does the AAP enact by monopolising the definition of corruption and then rendering it as the problem in/of politics?

Elections and Freedom of Choice

Elections seemingly offer freedom of choice. In its manifesto, the Congress calls itself “the only natural choice”. From the analysis here, one is led to aver that the choice among the APP, the BJP and the Congress is far from a real, substantial choice. On most issues they converge. The differences among them are over policies, not politics as Jacques Rancière reads it.

Elections lead to change in the government and policies. However, seldom do they lead to change in raison d'état, which may allow any change except its own. Set apart by centuries, India’s Chanakya and Italy’s Machiavelli share this point.

1679

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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