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Where have we read this before?

The unreadable put out by the unprincipled is as good a way to describe the political manifestos of India’s national parties.

india Updated: Apr 05, 2009 20:47 IST

The unreadable put out by the unprincipled is as good a way to describe the political manifestos of India’s national parties. Manifestos are supposed to outline a set of principles and policies reflecting a coherent political ideology. A line-up of election manifestos should provide the voter a range of alternative national visions from which to choose. In India such a line-up provides a range of alternative public relations strategies. The manifestos seem to be intended for media consumption, designed to not offend any potential electoral constituency and — because they are, therefore, impossible to implement — ignored by voters and authors alike.

A Congress leader pointed out that 70 per cent of his party’s document was replicated in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto. The truth is that the same can be said for almost all the manifestos. Certain boxes are ticked by all: freebies for farmers, an independent foreign policy and the creation of infrastructure utopia. The quirky bits that separate the parties from each other are largely marginal. This year the BJP has the Ram Sethu. The Communist Party of India continues its obsession with the Indo-US nuclear deal. The Congress’s unique stamp is the same old: fulsome praise for the Nehru-Gandhi family. Otherwise, none of the manifestos are remotely empirical. Thus, the economic promises — huge expenditure and massive tax reductions — defy arithmetic. Nonetheless, manifestos can provide a broad sense of contemporary political debate. For example, it is evident that populism in a particularly destructive form has made a strong comeback this election. The regional parties are also trying to ride on successful local policies, claiming they can now be painted on a national canvas.

A more positive view can be taken. The sameness of the manifestos is indicative of the broad stability of the Indian polity. There is relatively little in these public declarations that is overtly hateful or socially destructive. A democracy of a billion presses moderation on even the most rabid ideologue. Because the life patterns of Indians span four centuries, it is impossible for a political philosophy to cut its cloth to a size that fits all. This makes the fuzziness of the manifestos a reflection of the strength of Indian democracy to function — and means they are not manifestos at all.