Lok Sabha elections 2019: How politics is in a populist trap

Both Congress and BJP wish to be seen rather similarly - as populist, welfare-statist, inclusive and nationalist.

 |  5-minute read |   17-04-2019
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The paradox of election manifestos of political parties is that though they are analysed to death, no one cares for them. Especially, now that elections are already underway, and the first phase of polling was completed on April 11.

vote-690_041719111328.jpgVoters mostly do not read election manifestos. (Source: Reuters)

Mirror manifestos

Voters don’t read manifestoes; they find them too long, too detailed or factfilled, and boring. One might even say that manifestoes, a necessary evil, take away from the juiciness and thrill of the real action, which is in hard-fought election campaigns by larger-than-life personalities. No wonder, the aam aadmi takes with huge pinch, if not bushel, of salt the tall promises that leaders habitually make. One proof of the irrelevance of manifestos is that although regional parties also release them, hardly anyone takes the latter seriously.

But the same cannot be said of our two national parties, the BJP and the Congress. Apart from political pundits and commentators, public intellectuals and engaged citizens ought to consider them seriously. This is because they reveal fundamental issues and aspects of our political formation. In fact, the beauty of the two manifestos in question is that they suggest that we are moving towards a stable, three-cornered, triangular political configuration. Two national parties are battling it out, with a host of regional allies, at both the Centre and the state levels.

From this point of view, a careful comparison of the BJP and Congress manifestos reveals perhaps the truly remarkable paradox of Indian politics: how radically different yet disconcertingly similar our two largest national parties are. One may mock the proof-reading bloopers of the one or the glaringly divisive appeal of the other. But what prevails, in the end, is that both our centrist parties wish to be seen rather similarly — as populist, welfare-statist, inclusive and nationalist. Purely on the basis of their overt ideologies spelled out in their manifestoes they appear almost to mirror one another. The differences, and these are quite stark and crucial, are in the fine print — or even beneath it, in what is left unsaid.

congress-690_041719112016.jpg

bjp-690_041719112027.jpgThe Congress and the BJP have made a slew of promises in their manifestos. (Source: PTI)

Both parties, sadly, do not appear to endorse swaraj, a polity constituted by a highly evolved, self-reliant, and strong citizenry, capable of solving its own problems and holding the state accountable both for its good and bad deeds. Rather, both wish to propagate and perpetuate some form of a ‘maibaap’ sarkar, offering targeted sops and concessions, designed to appease or induce some section or the other of the populace to vote for them.

Both parties believe in and reinforce a gargantuan state apparatus, bordering on the socialist, in which a centralised extractive mechanism makes the government the largest, most powerful, non-productive sector of the economy, handing out doles and disbursements in the name of distributive justice.

Sop stories

In the guise of welfare measures and helping the poor, good governance, fiscal discipline, and self-reliance are easily sacrificed or downplay ed. Measures that would automatically raise the standards of living and empower the least privileged are eschewed in favour of dramatic and high-sounding schemes.

But reducing the role of the government is what neither party wishes. Instead, each wants to appropriate more and more resources to increase its political leverage and populist appeal. Of the two, however, the Congress is the more economically and ethically adventurist and irresponsible; its promised cash injection is sure drastically to increase the number of ‘poor’ people in India so that the latter can qualify for the free cash of Rs 72,000 a year.

The BJP projects itself as an overtly or overly nationalist party, highlighting security over other issues. Is their fascination for — some might say appealing in the name of — men in uniform a sign of their predilection for authority over individual freedom?

india-690_041719112134.jpgMany of promises made are not achievable — the parties know it as do the voters. (Source: Reuters)

Tall promises

The Congress, on the other hand, is blatantly minoritarian as well as polarising, accusing its rival of rending not just the secular fabric, but of destroying the very idea of India: “Will India be a free and democratic country and will the Indian people be free from fear, free to live and work and pray and eat and love and marry according to their wishes… Or will India be governed by a pernicious ideology that will trample upon people’s rights, institutions, conventions and the healthy differences that are the essence of a multi-cultural country?” That this appeal lacks substance is the fallacy that the Congress, as well as its many intellectual and artistic supporters, seem not to have understood.

The Congress does not have a monopoly over freedom or multiculturalism. Similarly, all those who vote for the BJP are not traitors or fascists. But the most important aspect of the two manifestos is the clash of their supremos, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The Congress manifesto tries its best to project the latter as a viable alternative to Modi. It begins with a signed foreword by Gandhi, but with this startling assertion: “I’ve never broken a promise that I’ve made.” Really? Isn’t politics, one might ask, the art of breaking promises without being easily found out? If so, a person who does not break promises has no place in it? But what if Rahul really keeps all his promises, including NYAY?

Mightn’t that spell disaster for the country? Without being uncharitable, can we ask if such ‘unkeepable’ promises themselves indicate a would-be, if not hasbeen, promise-breaker?

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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

Writer

Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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