Has the Bharatiya Janata Party given up on voters in Arunachal Pradesh east, Visakhapatnam, Gaya and Baramulla Lok Sabha constituencies? And those in Kalahandi, Secunderabad and Ghaziabad? Or has the party taken them for granted?
By releasing its manifesto for the 2019 elections less than 72 hours before the first vote is cast in 91 seats across 20 states, what is the BJP saying really? That manifestos don’t matter in a personality-driven election?
These seats account for no less than a sixth of the strength of the Lok Sabha, and include all constituencies in two states – Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. How are voters in these seats that go to polls Thursday expected to make up their mind on voting for the BJP if it reveals its plans and programmes Monday?
Perhaps, the BJP has enough reason to be cynical. In 2014, the BJP released its manifesto on the morning of the day of polling in the first phase, and still went on to sweep the election.
In effect, the manifestos of the parties in that election weren’t worth the paper on which they were printed. If the BJP did not give the electorate a chance to read and digest its manifesto, the electorate did not seem to like the taste of the well-on-time promises of the rest either.
This time around, the scorn for the election manifesto seems to have spread to a few other parties too. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh, both the main contestants, the Telugu Desam Party and the YSR Congress Party, released their manifestos just four days ahead of polling. The state is also electing a new legislative assembly.
It is a dangerous trend for democracy if parties themselves don’t treat manifestos with the seriousness they deserve.
Manifestos, over the years, have begun to look less and less like a document that lays out a vision for implementation of plans and programmes, and more like a laundry list of promises parties can’t deliver on.
The debate around these important documents has remained largely academic, with no serious attempt by parties to educate the voter on what their own manifestos and those of their rivals actually mean. On the other hand, parties seem to take comfort in the truth that few voters make informed choices based on the content in the manifestos.
It may well be that it suits the parties to keep the voter ignorant, rather than risk answering questions asked of them. With parties not held accountable to the pledges they make, manifestos are easy ploys to fall back on to promise the fantastic and to offer the unimplementable.
After the 2014 controversy erupted over the BJP releasing its manifesto on the first day of polling, the Election Commission has amended the model code of conduct prohibiting parties from releasing their manifestos 48 hours before polling.
Deliberately delaying the release of the manifesto serves two purposes. One, it helps counter the promises made by rival parties in their manifestos. Two, a last-minute release helps the party ensure people have better top-of-the-mind recall than a manifesto of a rival party released much earlier.
The democratic way for any political party seeking the people’s mandate is to present its action plan well in advance so that stakeholders have enough time for assimilation, critiquing and rectification.
The Congress unveiled its manifesto a good six days before the BJP released its poll pledge. Not sufficient enough time, but at least it did better than the BJP. In the UK, manifestos are important documents and parties release them at the onset of elections. The House of Lords, the equivalent of India’s Rajya Sabha, cannot vote out any promises made in the ruling party’s manifesto.
The Congress manifesto was dissected at length in the media and even ridiculed by arch rival, BJP, on many counts. That is the way it should be. The Congress also held a detailed question and answer session with the media after the release of the manifesto. But the BJP leaders refused to take any questions. Does this betray a touch of nervousness or is it plain contempt for voters?
To ensure a level playing field, the Election Commission will do well to mandate that all parties contesting the elections should release their manifestos on the same day, say within two days of the announcement of elections.
Elections are held before the expiry of the terms of the Lok Sabha and the state assemblies. They can very well start preparing their manifestos so as to be able to present them before the electorate on a day specified by the Election Commission.
The author is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.