Election Manifesto: How they influence our mandate

To lay out a basic definition, a manifesto is a kind of declaration about the motives, intentions and views of a political party. It allows you to find out which party has ideals that align the most with yours and how they plan to achieve it. And with the elections coming up, the manifesto has become a thing of great importance. 

However, the question arises do manifestos matter? Do the targeted audiences - the voters really read and vote on the basis of the content and quality of the manifestos? According to a recent survey held in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a majority of the voters had replied that they had indeed studied the manifesto. However, in the other states, the same survey yielded poor results. The manifesto was hardly read. Some political scientists view the irrelevance of manifestos as the biggest drawback of Indian democracy. This disregard for them goes back to the nation’s first general elections in 1951-52. 

In India, political parties frequently offer populist schemes such as subsidies and free commodities in their election manifestos. In fact, things got so bad that the Supreme Court had ordered the Election Commission to frame appropriate guidelines to curb the misuse of manifestos.

Manifestos lack legal basis and are primarily a declaration of a political party’s agenda. In India, parties have paid little heed to their manifestos. Voters did not have the means to hold parties accountable to their promises, leading to a decline in the document’s relevance. 

All of this changed when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came into the scene. The AAP made its electoral foray in November 2013 when it contested the Delhi state elections. It wanted to make a good first impression and show voters that it had “different” ideas. Therefore, the party put great emphasis on its manifesto. In fact, the AAP drafted different manifestos for the various constituencies.

With its members coming from diverse non-political backgrounds and who were not steeped in the party’s political culture, the AAP wanted to spell out its ideology and policies. Therefore, the manifesto assumed an identity-forming exercise for the AAP. When its policies and promise came under scrutiny, the party backtracked on its manifesto repeatedly. However, by focusing on its manifesto, the AAP established its importance in Indian politics.

In the general elections in 2014, the manifesto became a tool of one-upmanship between various political parties. On May 26, Narendra Modi became the 15th Prime Minister of India. To kick-start the country’s economy and improve governance, Modi, as one, his first prime ministerial decisions, detailed a ten-point plan. Modi’s opponents were quick on the offensive, claiming his statements were mere words. The BJP, in his defence, claimed the details had already been spelt out in the party’s election manifesto.

Going back to the AAP, two interesting outcomes emerged from the AAP’s focus on the election manifesto. First, the Congress party backed the AAP on the basis of an 18-point program that was derived from its manifesto in the Delhi state elections. Second, as the AAP did not have a majority for it to push through legislation on its own, the party needed support from Congress. This showed the limitations of the document as a campaigning tool and its new strength as a policy roadmap for the party that assumes power. 

The AAP began asking voters for ideas to demonstrate that it was in sync with grassroots aspirations. In the recent elections, Congress also claimed that its manifesto had been produced by consultations with people at the grassroots. The former ruling party asserts that its detailed manifesto is the longest to date. India’s now-ruling party, the BJP, claimed it received input from over 100,000 people.

Despite losing by a landslide, Congress was the most creative with its election manifesto. It sought to reverse the negative perception of the party by promising to make amends in areas where past policies failed, and instead highlighting those initiatives that yielded positive results. The Congress manifesto urged caution over drafting new laws similar to its amendment on tax legislation that was highly controversial. While the party lost at the polls, this was a sign of Congress’ willingness to learn from its mistakes.

The revitalization of manifestos saw parties take a clearer stand on issues that are normally obfuscated by political doublespeak. Congress finally decided to bite the bullet on the subject of affirmative action in private enterprises. So far, affirmative action is applicable only to government organizations. After dithering on the issue for years, Congress decided to extend the initiative to improve its prospects for re-election — clearly, it failed.

The AAP, meanwhile, suffered embarrassment thanks to its manifesto. It publicly announced that it supported equal rights for LGBT individuals and would repeal Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes "unnatural sex". while it did not include gender minority issues in its manifesto, Onir, a noted filmmaker and gay rights activist, withdrew his support for the party. Clearly, some Indian voters still take manifestos seriously.

Still, Manifestos are hardly read by the common voter, but it works as a guiding force during the election campaign. It is clear that manifestos have become more important in India, however, different parties treat them with varying degrees of importance. The media has a new topic to focus on, while political parties continue to attack their rivals’ agenda. With the new elections going on, the manifesto has become a point of scrutiny and has also found new relevance.

- Zoya Chettri 

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