What political parties must not do for votes, writes Karan Thapar
Let me start with an admission. I accept what I’m about to state could be coloured by the fact I have Covid-19. I would like to believe it’s not but I can’t be certain. Each of you must judge for yourself.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Bihar manifesto promise of a free vaccine if it wins is immoral and I’ll soon explain why. The manifesto proclaims: “It is our promise that when a vaccine for Covid is available… every Bihar resident will be given free vaccination.” Nirmala Sitharaman, who released the document, went further. “This is the first promise in our Sankalp Patra”, she said. So it follows it’s the most important. And it’s made “with responsibility”. In other words, the BJP has carefully thought it through.
Now, the promise does not breach India’s carefully-defined electoral laws or rules. Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act states that “a declaration of public policy or a promise of public action” are acceptable manifesto promises and not an attempt to gain undue influence. The Congress’s Nyay scheme of 2019, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s repeated cornucopia of goodies in Tamil Nadu elections, and countless loan waivers for farmers by several parties are justified on this ground.
However, it’s when you consider what these promises amount to — what they are, in fact, saying to voters — that you will realise the ocean-like gap between waiving farm loans or giving gratis TVs and promising a free vaccine. These manifesto promises are transactional. Although no money is changing hands, it’s not incorrect to say that they are ways of soliciting people’s votes. Colloquially, we call that buying. A party is saying to the voters, if you vote for me in sufficient numbers, and I win, I will do A, B and C for you.
Now, promises of free TVs or loan waivers cater to people’s material needs. A promise of a free vaccine, in the middle of a pandemic raging for ten months, plays upon people’s fears. Not for their country, state or community but of their own lives. In these circumstances, the unstated part is if you don’t vote for the BJP, your life could be at risk. Metaphorically speaking, that feels like a gun to the head.
What makes it worse is this promise has been made by a party that’s ruling the entire country. The BJP is not just committed, but also obliged to, do its best for every Indian. At this time, every citizen is afraid of Covid-19 and anxious for a vaccine. I would add the majority are not just hoping for, but also dependent upon, a free vaccine. Yet, the BJP has promised it only to the voters of Bihar.
Let me, however, go one step further. There’s a critical difference between the British Labour Party promising a National Health Service (NHS) in the 1945 elections and the BJP promising a free vaccine in Bihar in 2020. There wasn’t a pandemic in 1945 and certainly not the worst in a century. Tens of millions were not infected by disease. Hundreds of thousands were not in danger of dying.
The NHS created a system to cater to a long-felt need. The vaccine is an urgent solution to a pressing and, perhaps, worsening crisis. The British people had lived their lives waiting for a NHS and, if necessary, could have waited longer. Many Indians — perhaps a majority? — could die if the pandemic sharply escalates and they can’t afford a vaccine.
Ultimately, it’s not the immorality of this promise that distresses me. It’s the distastefulness of it. It’s unbecoming. It’s beyond the pale. I didn’t think people would stoop so low to get someone’s vote. There are some limits you do not cross. Isn’t that what they mean when they say there’s honour even among thieves?
As I end, I’m reminded of the title of Alan Paton’s book Cry, the beloved country. If you substitute the definite article with the pronoun my, it could apply to us.