Of patras and guarantee cards

Recent manifestos are easy-to-read documents

G.K. Chesterton said, “Every politician is emphatically a promising politician.” More so in an election season, when they hunt us in packs and flood us with promises that make us forget their performance.

Parties are worse. They make a plethora of promises, and compile those into ‘manifestos’, a word that came to be dreaded ever since two 19th century Germans wrote one about a spectre that was haunting Europe—not of an election, but of a revolution.

In the olden days, manifestos read like PhD theses, the opening chapter of a Thomas Hardy novel, the first page of a James Joyce book, or a statement drafted by our foreign office. Every reading left your mind foggier. And linguists say, ‘manifesto’ comes from Latin ‘manifestum’ which means ‘clear’!

Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai Imaging: Deni Lal/Ai

Let’s be fair. Manifestos, these days, are reader-friendly. The credit, if you ask me, should go to P.V. Narasimha Rao. The one that he drafted for the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress in 1991 read like a things-to-do list, a never-before attempt. It simply listed what the party would do in the first 100 days of government, in the first one year, in the first two years, in 1,000 days and so on. You could keep it on your desk as a checklist, and tick it every now and then.

Yet, the simple checklist carried a political vision—the roadmap for the economic reforms that its regime would unveil in the next five years.

The BJP took simplicity to the extreme in the next polls. Its 1996 manifesto promised, among other things, to add fruit juice to cold drinks, and get banks to update our passbooks!

Manifestos have since matured. The recent ones are easy-to-read documents, yet containing the political vision that a party wants to share. The challenge for us is not to comprehend the content, but the titles. The Congress calls theirs Nyay Patra; that sounds like an Odiya name, or an affidavit filed in a court of law. The BJP calls theirs Modi Ki Guarantee Sankalp Patra. You may think it’s a guarantee card, styled as a palm-leaf scroll, that came with your new washing machine. Pun intended.

There is no hard-and-fast rule regarding the content or titling. Parties can promise the moon, Mars or Mercury as long as they don’t violate the Constitution or the model code. The BSP plays it safe. More often than not, they don’t issue any manifesto, saying those are hollow promises.

Not true. Most of what governments do in the larger policy domain are things that would have been promised in manifestos. As said earlier, the reforms of the 1990s were laid out in the 1991 Congress manifesto. The Congress promised right to education in 2004, delivered it in 2009.

Some may take a few years. The BJP promised to scrap Article 370 in its 1984 manifesto; it did in 2019. It promised a UCC in 1989; delivered it in Uttarakhand in 2024.

Manifestos ought to be taken seriously. Ask the CIA. They looked foolish when A.B. Vajpayee made the bomb. They wouldn’t have, if they had read the BJP’s 1998 manifesto where the bomb option was mentioned in plain English.

What are parties promising this time? The BJP guarantees welfare—free health insurance to 70-year-olds, piped cooking gas, free ration for the poor for five more years, and more. The Congress offers to scrap Agnipath, make Jammu-Kashmir a state again (but no return of 370), give legal guarantee to crop prices, one-year apprenticeship to youth, Rs 1 lakh to one woman in every poor home, and more.

Not much different? Their political visions are. One guarantees regime stability; the other offers democratic liberties.

Your choice.