Political parties must be held accountable for their election manifestoes
If democracy is a social contract between those elected and ordinary citizens, then manifestoes should be considered as a legal contract enshrining a country’s purported development agendaopinion Updated: May 21, 2018 08:30 IST
In India, nobody really reads manifestoes. The manifesto rarely impresses voters or helps parties swing voters — it has transformed into an intellectual and ideological exercise at best. Ideally, an election manifesto would be an important part of the political process, but it has rarely played a part in post-Independence India’s political history — aside from the slogan “Garibi Hatao”, few remember the contents of the Congress’s 1971 manifesto.
An election manifesto serves several purposes in a modern day democracy like India. It helps highlight the potential of a party’s stint in government to undecided voters, while spelling out the consensus agenda agreed to by the party’s diversity of ideological and regional special groups.
The challenge, however, is when manifesto promises go unfulfilled; a case of Pinocchio writ large. Part of this due to the very nature of manifestoes — Lord Denning, a peer in the House of Lords, observed that the manifesto of any political party cannot be taken as a gospel or a signed and agreed bond. As the erstwhile Chief Justice of India has noted, “manifestoes have become a mere piece of paper” and political parties need to be held accountable for them. A number of parties promised to introduce the Women Reservation Bill in 2004, repeating the same promise in 2009 and 2014, while making no significant efforts when in power or in Opposition to support its passage; this is despite the fact that women have been the heads of four major political parties in the recent past.
Judicial options for ensuring compliance are limited — a PIL filed by advocate Mithilesh Kumar Pandey was rejected by the Supreme Court bench which said that it is not the court’s job to consider a matter of unfulfilled promises. The model code of conduct drafted by the Election Commission of India (ECI) for the 2014 general elections had guidelines that prohibited parties from making promises in their manifestoes that would exert an undue influence on voters. However, the very fact that the code is not enforceable by law leads to such guidelines being followed only in abeyance. ECI has sought to hold the line — it censured the AIADMK in August 2016 for not being able to give a rationale and means to meet the financial requirements for the poll promises provided in its manifesto in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections that year. But this approach has had limited dividends.
It is important for political parties to be made accountable for their promises by ensuring a legal responsibility for their fulfilment. The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, in 2013, recommended that the model code should be made legally binding and made a part of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 — such a reform would add teeth to ECI’s powers, enabling it to deter political parties from making empty promises in manifestoes. There must be a cost to unfulfilled manifesto promises, aside from a chance of being voted out of power.
The push towards specific, headlinegrabbing promises in party manifestoes is a recent trend globally — Britain’s Conservative Party general election manifesto of 1959 promised only “prosperity and peace” while Labour spoke about “bringing the work to the workers”. More recent elections in Britain have had political parties providing specificity on their promises, particularly for NHS. Announcing grandiose ideas in a manifesto can lock out options in the development process — US President Donald Trump’s call to “build a great, great wall on our southern border” and to have “Mexico pay for the wall” has frozen NAFTA renegotiations while fuelling resentment.
India’s democracy has two paths — one leads it to a future where every political party offers variations on the same set of promises, transforming elections into investment decision for rich individuals, where one’s purchasing power plays its part; another has political parties kept in check from making outlandish promises by civil society, regulatory watchdogs and other political parties themselves.
If democracy is a social contract between those elected and ordinary citizens, then manifestoes should be considered as a legal contract enshrining a country’s purported development agenda. For the health of India’s democracy, ensuring accountability for manifestoes remains a key reform to be pushed.
Varun Gandhi is BJP national general secretary and Lok Sabha MP
The views expressed are personal