Seven states are gearing up for assembly elections in 2022, and the set pieces of Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party and other political players are already in place — from boisterous rallies to spirited slogans. However, nothing hits as hard as the launch of a manifesto to indicate the onset of the season of democratic exuberance. Our amnesiac leaders might make promises in speeches and in front of the press, but nothing speaks as loudly of intent as the words in black and white. It’s both a statement of purpose and a report card for the public to evaluate parties on. It’s a register that lives beyond its inception, a tableau that captures the essence of politics in India.
The Congress recently released its manifesto for the Uttar Pradesh elections, while the BJP is reported to have formed a committee to work towards it. But with Gujarat, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur and Goa — all going to polls next year, it’s worthwhile to cast a glance toward the election and party manifestos and their function as a pathway to democratic representation. In particular, we must make an attempt to use the declaration to revisit public policies, especially by the ruling party, within the framework of the past elections.
Pathway to democracy in India
A textual analysis of party manifestos published in the last three elections by INC and BJP, with filters for commonly occurring keywords was conducted to detect variations and draw patterns. These shed a light on a variety of insights, especially in their field of priorities, representation and target vote base.
It was observed that the political manifestos of these parties had common recurring words. BJP that emerged victorious in the last two elections, had a greater frequency of occurrence for words like ‘defence’, ‘terrorism’, ‘development’, ‘digital’ and ‘dalits’, while its biggest contender, Congress, used words like ‘education’, ‘employment’, ‘reforms’, ‘safety’, ‘women’, ‘rural’ and ‘urban’ more. The frequency of occurrence of keywords such as ‘farmers’, ‘youth’, and ‘agriculture’ was greater in the Congress manifesto albeit with a small margin.
From our theoretical premise, the cumulative frequency of occurrence of words in manifestos of major political parties can be considered a pointer towards popular public opinion. An election-wise analysis of the commonly used keywords in manifestos of major political parties is, therefore, a means to understand issues that have really mattered to the people in the last few elections and upon which they cast their votes. The chart below represents the usage of certain keywords in manifestos drawn in the last three national elections.
The key takeaway from the chart is how development, education and women’s issues have been the three key areas for both Congress and BJP, at least in their manifestos. This insight might be surprising to many who hold the popular belief that youth, rural India and terrorism has been the dominant discourse that swayed political winds. It is possible, however, that this speaks to a larger issue of the difference between an official declaration and ground-level chatter.
The data also illustrates how reforms and employment have emerged as two major topics of concerns for India today — the echoes of which we saw in many policies that the Narendra Modi government introduced after the 2019 elections.
Program-to-policy linkage of manifestos
Manifestos are also a means to measure the extent to which electoral promises have been translated into policies, or what is called the ‘programme-to-policy linkage’. Now, given that the party programme that secures votes are symptomatic of the policy opinion of the voters, greater programme-to-policy linkage translates into greater representation.
A mapping of the major promises made by the ruling BJP in its manifesto with actual policy decisions shows that partisan issue does reach the legislative agenda. The diagram below maps the most used words in the 2019 BJP manifesto to the policy decisions that have seen the light of the day.
The success of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana that led to the distribution of over 83 million gas connections till 2020, trailblazed a second phase that was announced in August this year. Within a few months of commissioning of the PM Ujjwala Yojana 2.0, the valid applications received for gas connections far exceeded its stated target of 10 million. Seen as one of the prominent schemes that ensured BJP’s return to power, Ujjwala Yojana is also a succinct example of an effective and relevant welfare policy. Tackling the problems associated with unclean cooking fuel including health hazards and the inconvenience of sourcing wood, this flagship scheme has been a boon, especially for women. The scheme has additionally strengthened the gas distribution network creating jobs and fostering domestic production. An audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in 2019, however, had revealed that refills ordered by scheme beneficiaries were declining. Thus, despite the right policy and procedure, the scheme was yet to catalyse a sustained usage of clean cooking fuel — a challenge that would keep the policy-makers occupied going forward.
A case-in-point for another policy that preceded a long-standing public demand is the National Education Policy 2020. The emphasis on the early learning by mandating the application of the Right to Education (RTE) to children as young as 3 years of age, encouraging instruction in one’s mother tongue at the primary level and provisions for continuous internal assessment are welcome steps. Bringing back a four-year degree option to facilitate a seamless transition of students into their fields of specialisation and allowing college drop-outs to pursue their education at a later stage, gathered approval from several quarters. What garnered brickbats were the implementation challenges that some parts of the policy may encounter. For instance, the lack of critical infrastructure for online courses or the availability of enough schools and colleges for the targets defined. The execution of this grand policy will consequently be observed very keenly by educationists, policy students and the media alike.
A holistic picture of Modi govt
To paint a holistic picture of the Modi government’s success in meeting the demands of Indian citizens, one needs to not only look at the policies/schemes introduced — that correspond to its manifesto — but also analyse its implementation and locate its public perception. Passing laws or formulating schemes to cater to the category or groups of people that find mention in the party manifesto also do not mean that the beneficiaries homogenously regard the decision as favourable.
Despite these caveats, a thorough analysis of election manifestos vis-à-vis government decisions is an important field of enquiry in the discipline of representative democracy. As we approach high-profile state elections in our country, manifesto study as a unit of analysis should be explored further for research and poll predictions.
The author is a Policy Manager at Nation First Policy Research Centre. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)