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Manifestos Must Be Practical; Political Parties Accountable

Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu

It is time to keenly watch the new State and Central governments and hold them accountable to the promises they made. The oxford dictionary defines manifesto as ‘A public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate’. Manifestos are meant to showcase the vision/ideas of a political party for dealing with the challenges that the country or state faces. Unfortunately they have lately become more of a tool that is used to garner votes before election only to be forgotten post election. Populism than realism is what drives manifestos. 

Where does the problem lie?
The problem is that no political party is accountable to their own manifesto. They only look at it as a tool to be used pre election. The manifestos are not justiciable, meaning they can’t be contested in a court in case of violations. All this results in a scenario, where they become just a piece of paper post election. 

The problem also lies with the kind of populism that drives manifesto making. No political party does any exercise on how much the promises in the manifesto are going to cost and if they indeed are possible. It would not be overstatement to say that most leaders of parties do not even know what is written in their manifestos. Manifestos have become an exercise of the elite. They rarely consult people, citizen groups or others working on various issues. It is enough if the top brass of the party is convinced about the vote garnering ability of these promises. The second rung leadership is rarely involved.

What does the Election Commission say?
The Election Commission did hold a few meetings this time around. They held meetings with various national and state parties on formulation of guidelines for election manifestos. The- se meetings were necessitated following the Supreme Court directions to the EC to frame guide lines on Election manifesto in consultation with the recognised political parties, to be included as part of the Model Code of Conduct. Following these consultations, the EC did include some guidelines as a part of the Model Code of Conduct for the 2014 elections. Two important guidelines with respect to populist promises and the rationale behind it were also included. 

Political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise. In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled. Both the above guidelines were meant to push political parties to think before making any promise. Unfortunately none of the political parties followed these guidelines.

International Experience
In the United States, parties do not offer specific benefits unlike their Indian counterparts, but outline plans and policies that would benefit large groups of population. In many West European countries, manifestos tend to mention more concrete policy choices as well as their budgetary implications. Sometimes, parties add financial paragraphs to their manifestos, which may be submitted to a Court of Audit (if it exists), which calculates how realistic each manifesto is. In Bhutan, political parties are required to submit a copy of their election manifesto to the E C, before primary round of National Assembly elections. Manifestos are issued to the public only with its approval.

In terms of the legal provisions with respect to manifestos, Electoral Authorities have power to vet manifestos and get certain types of content remov- ed in Bhutan and Mexico. In the UK, the Electoral Authority issues guidelines for campaign materials (which would apply to manifestos also).In matured democracies, manifestos play an important role. Political parties take this exercise very seriously and manifestos are generally adhered to. Policy initiatives dominate the manifestos along with budget/fiscal implications than blank promises. In the US presidential debates, voters grill candidates on their vision and manifesto. Leaders cannot escape scrutiny. 

What about our manifestos?
The manifestos of the Indian political parties are a mix of populism and vague promises. None of them talk of the fiscal implications. The BJP made about 500 promises in their 2014 manifesto, a majority of which are vague. The manifestos of other parties are more or less similar with a mix of populism and vague promises.

Way forward: 
The way forward is to focus on both the preparation of the manifesto and the kind of promises that feature in the manifestos. Manifesto making should be a consultative exercise where the parties begin their work 6-9 months before the elections. They must hold consultations with relevant groups/people and seek their input. For every promise in the manifesto, the fiscal/budgetary impact should be made mandatory. This can reduce the number of irrational and vague promises that are often seen. These manifestos must be discussed in the public domain and the leaders should be held responsible for what they promise. This way, the entire leadership of the party gets involved and manifesto making will assume greater importance.

The writer RTI activist, can be reached at: rakesh.dubbudu@gmail.com

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