Between the Lines: How the BJP and Congress manifestos hold up on national security

Sushant Sareen
Sushant SareenApr 12, 2019 | 12:40

Between the Lines: How the BJP and Congress manifestos hold up on national security

The BJP scores over the Congress due to a clear stand on issues of nationalism and internal security. But both parties flounder on other crucial issues.

Election manifestos are documents that no one normally takes very seriously because they are so full of hyperbole and outlandish promises that everyone knows will be fulfilled only in their breach.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped political parties from promising the earth and moon to their target audience. Until 1998, most security policy analysts would scan through manifestos in a somewhat perfunctory manner.


But the nuclear tests of 1998 changed everything.


Reading between the lines? There's been great excitement around the release of election manifestos this year. (Photo: PTI)

The BJP had openly declared its intention to induct nuclear weapons in India’s arsenal in its election manifesto — and yet, when the tests happened, everyone was taken by surprise since hardly anyone had read, much less taken seriously, that 1998 manifesto. Since then, security analysts go through election manifestos with a microscope, so that they aren’t caught napping. Among other things, the one enduring legacy of the 1998 nuclear tests is that election manifestos have started to be taken far more seriously than was the case.

Against the backdrop of the Pulwama suicide bombing and the Balakot air-strikes, national security has acquired a political salience that it might not have otherwise.

This is reflected in the manifestos of both the main national parties, the BJP and the Congress. However, while the BJP has given top billing to national security, the Congress has placed employment and economy above national security. Beside the placement of national security in the pecking order of issues, both manifestos are rather sketchy and don’t give any details about how they will deliver on what they are proposing to do.


Take, for example, the Congress promise to “reverse the trend of decline defence spending” and increase it to “meet the requirements of the armed forces”. This would sound like music to the ears of most security and strategic analysts — except that given the sort of commitments the party is making on minimum income guarantee, education, research in science and technology, burdening the exchequer with filling four lakh ‘vacancies’ in the central government and another 20 lakh in state governments, and all the other freebies, doles and sops it is throwing in, it appears highly unlikely if there will be any fiscal space to even maintain the current level of defence spending — much less raise it.

The Congress has promised to increase defence spending — so has the BJP. How remains unclear. (Source: Reuters)

As for modernisation programmes being expedited, the record of the UPA doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.

For its part, the BJP has declared that it will “speed up the purchases of outstanding defence related equipment and weapons”, and “equip the armed forces with modern equipment… strengthen the strike capability of the armed forces.” Although the BJP did push through certain acquisitions, not only has the defence budget as a percentage of GDP fallen below 1.5% — the lowest since 1962 — the resources committed to military modernisation have fallen in the last three years of the Modi government.


Therefore, if its past record is anything to go by, the BJP’s rhetoric on building the sinews of the armed forces doesn’t quite match with its performance.

Despite a somewhat patchy record of the BJP in beefing up the capabilities of the defence forces, and pushing ahead with modernisation and restructuring programmes, perceptionally at least, the BJP seems to score over the Congress. Part of the reason is, of course, the kinetic actions taken by the Modi government — ‘surgical strikes’, Balakot and Mission Shakti. But part of the reason is also the clear and unambiguous stand taken on issues of nationalism and internal security, reflected in the “policy of ‘zero tolerance’ against terrorism and extremism” and “giving a free hand to security forces in combating terrorism”.

The Congress, on the other hand, is widely seen as defending and standing with the ‘tukde-tukde gang’.

Add to this the Congress’ stand on Kashmir — reviewing not just the deployment of armed forces but also reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) under which the army is empowered to carry out anti-terror operations in Jammu and Kashmir — and it gives the impression that the Congress is soft on separatism, more so when the manifesto also promises to look for “innovative federal solutions” that “eschew muscular militarism and legalistic formulations”.

That the Congress “promises talks without pre-conditions” only adds to the suspicion that perhaps the grand old party is open to discussing solutions outside the ambit of the Indian Constitution because until now, every dialogue offer was made with the caveat that negotiations had to be within the framework of the Constitution.

Wiry Talk: The BJP has promised to repeal Article 370 in J&K — the Congress has promised to review AFSPA. (Source: Reuters)

On Kashmir, the BJP has once again reiterated its old stand of abrogating Article 370 and also declared its commitment to annulling Article 35A. Frankly, the entire debate over Article 370 is a bit of a farce — it is unlikely that the BJP will have the numbers to abrogate Article 370, certainly not in the J&K state Assembly, which has to ratify the abrogation.

If anything, Article 370 is a bit like the Ram Temple issue — always on the agenda without anything really being done to push ahead on it.

On Article 35A, Modi 1.0 was ambivalent and never took a clear-cut stand.

It remains to be seen if Modi 2.0 will be any different.

The one glaring omission in both manifestos has been the absence of the nuclear weapons programme. In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP had promised to “revise and update it [nuclear doctrine], to make it relevant to challenges of current times”. But in 2019, there is no mention of the nuclear weapons programme.

The Congress manifesto is limited to pushing ahead for membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Both the main parties have an almost similar stand on combating left-wing extremism, combining kinetic action against the extremists with developmental activities in the Naxal-affected districts.

Where the Congress manifesto scores over the BJP is in the fact that it takes a somewhat broader view on national security and talks about things like data, cyber, financial, communication and trade security — the BJP has a much narrower focus and doesn’t even mention these dimensions of national security which will be extremely critical in the years ahead.

On another critical issue — restructuring the higher defence management — the Congress manifesto talks of establishing the office of Chief of Defence Staff. The BJP manifesto is silent on this issue. Both parties have expressed their commitment to promoting self-reliance in defence equipment through indigenisation of production and encouraging private sector participation.

On the two most immediate external threats to national security — Pakistan and China — there is virtually nothing in the manifestos of both the national parties.

Suddenly Khamosh: Both the BJP and Congress manifestos have virtually nothing on the external threat from China. (Source: PTI)

The BJP doesn’t even mention the word Pakistan except in the context of refugees. The Congress doesn’t say what it will do to stop the export of terrorism from Pakistan and only talks of persuading other countries to compel Pakistan to end its support to terrorist groups.

Even on China, except for beefing up border defences and building infrastructure along the borders, there is no outlining of the approach that either national party proposes to follow with India’s northern neighbour.

In the final analysis, the 2019 Congress manifesto has dealt with national security more extensively than its 2014 manifesto; conversely, the BJP’s 2014 manifesto was far more comprehensive on national security than its 2019 manifesto.

This begs the question whether parties in opposition tend to take a somewhat more holistic view of national security than those in government?

Last updated: April 19, 2019 | 19:54
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy