Election 2019: BJP Manifesto – Reading Between The LinesBloombergQuintOpinion
After no conversation on it in 2014, and subsequently during most of the assembly polls over the past five years, the election manifesto is once again a ‘story’ in journalistic parlance and trending ‘tag’ for those hooked on social media.
The principal reason for the return of party manifestos in the election narrative is the Congress document released on April 2 which made a concerted bid to resurrect bread and butter issues as primary talking points. Already, in the week leading to the manifesto release, BJP leaders were in a tizzy due to Rahul Gandhi’s March 25 announcement of the minimum income guarantee scheme or NYAY.
And, though BJP leaders picked several holes in the scheme, arguing it was ‘undoable’, they realised such criticism was insufficient. Consequently, they chose not to repeat their casual approach of 2014 when the party’s manifesto was perfunctorily released on the day of the first phase of voting.
BJP Forced To React?
But when the BJP manifesto arrived it lacked new ideas in the spheres where Congress has stirred much debate. Instead of countering Rahul Gandhi’s claim of India being in a state of “economic emergency”, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated that the “economy was in doldrums” when he took over the reins of the nation. Furthermore, BJP has continued to be label the document a Sankalp Patra or a letter of resolutions and not a manifesto.
Modi’s cover-note treads familiar territory listing virtues of the “trinity of Jan Dhan-Aadhaar and Mobile”, the corrupt realising that “their machinations will no longer be tolerated” and that “India stands tall at the international level.”
Since January, when Gandhi first announced his intention of promising a variation of the UBI, the BJP’s counter-strategy has been eagerly awaited. The BJP was certainly aware of the necessity to counter the Congress plan and in the interim budget which—Piyush Goyal presented as a stand-in for the then unwell Arun Jaitley—the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Sammaan Nidhi was announced. Goyal also reiterated the party’s intention to double farm income by 2022.
This has been repeated in the manifesto as if to convey a new promise being made whereas the BJP first made it in February 2016 during Arun Jaitley’s budget speech. Soon after, Modi restated the objective and later that year, a Committee on Doubling of Farmer’s Income was set up.
Yet, missing from the manifesto is a measure of how agricultural income has fared in the three years since the intention was first unveiled.
Additionally, the BJP manifesto does not provide details on what the party proposes to do on the issue; farmers and others interested in this subject are free to wade through 14 volumes of the report of the committee or track developments related to yet another body – the Inter-Ministerial Committee head by the CEO of National Rainfed Area Authority which has been tasked with recommending a strategy to meet the objective.
The lack of detail in the BJP manifesto on the progress made so far on farm income, underscores that the party’s priorities are different. The bulk of the manifesto, in fact, underlines the BJP’s stated positions on its contentious Hindutva-based programmes and pledges.
While the Congress manifesto has signalled boldness, by reviewing previously stated positions on several issues—AFSPA and the sedition law most prominently—and its intention to focus the electoral discourse on economic issues, the BJP manifesto reveals its intention to essentially contest the polls on the twin themes of populist nationalism and religious polarisation.
BJP’s Twists And Turns On J&K
Take the example of the decision to include for the first time, the demand to scrap Article 35A of the Indian Constitution. Debate on this issue has waged since July 2015 when the Delhi-based and RSS-affiliated Jammu and Kashmir Study Centre first decided to challenge this legislation in the Supreme Court. Besides deepening the cleavage in Jammu and Kashmir, the demand has greatly fanned majoritarian sentiments in the rest of India which sees the initiative as evidence of the Modi regime’s strong-arm tactics to rein in Kashmiris.
Significantly, with J&K now literally under, to borrow from noted writer and journalist, Basharat Peer’s memoir, ‘curfewed nights’ due to the bi-weekly shutdown of the Srinagar-Jammu national highway, the state’s lifeline, all that the BJP has promised for the people of the state are abrogation of Article 370 and annulling of Article 35A. There is not a word for either the majority of people in the state, because they are Muslims and this enables the BJP to connect lines on a majoritarian design, or on the BJP’s plans on how it proposes to restore a semblance of normalcy in the state.
Yet, the BJP has not always been consistent on its Kashmir policy.
Although the party—from the Jana Sangh days in the 1950s—has been opposed to the continuation of Article 370, on four occasions the party chose to go with the national consensus – that of maintaining the present position on ‘all constitutional provisions including special status’.
In its initial years in the 1980s, the BJP termed this clause in the Constitution as “temporary” and promised to “delete” it.
In 1991 however, it explained its stance for the first time, and after the emergence of terrorism and attacks on Hindus, it also promised protection and rehabilitation of displaced Kashmiri Pandits. The Article had to be scrapped, the BJP contended, because it “psychologically separated” J&K from the rest of India.
In 1996 and 1998, the party promised to abrogate the law but when it secured other partners, Article 370 was among the three ‘contentious issues’—the introduction of a Uniform Civil Code and construction of the Ram temple being the other two—that were dropped from the National Agenda of Governance. In 1999 and 2004, the BJP did not have a separate manifesto as NDA constituents decided to issue a common pledge. There was no mention of the controversial clause.
In 2009, the BJP remained committed to abrogating the law. But, in 2014 it made a concession, obviously with an eye on ‘middle India’. The party now said that although it “remains committed to the abrogation of this article”, the party was willing to “discuss this with all stakeholders.” Certainly, this was similar to agreeing to mediate on Ayodhya but without diluting the ‘mandir waheen banaenge’ stance but it nonetheless sent a signal of accommodation to the section which was uncomfortable about what BJP might become under Modi’s charge.
Yet the unexpected happened in early 2015 – the BJP joined hands with the People’s Democratic Party to form a coalition and the governance alliance promised that the “present position will be maintained on all the constitutional provisions pertaining to J&K including the special status in the Constitution of India”. Neither then, nor now, has the BJP explained its shifting positions on an issue that greatly shapes its Hindutva stance.
Sleight Of Hand On Those Entitled To Asylum?
But a more dramatic change in the BJP position has gone completely unnoticed. This is on the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the manifesto, as released on April 8, restates commitment to enact it but with a difference: the BJP has quietly dropped Christians and Parsis from the religious communities who are to be protected from persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan.
In the bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha, the legislative shield was provided to “persons belonging to minority communities, namely, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians”, but the manifesto limits itself to just “Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs escaping persecution from India’s neighbouring countries” who will be provided “citizenship in India”.
A later version of the manifesto includes the word ‘Christians’, but it still leaves out ‘Parsis’. Does this suggests a further narrowing of BJP’s beliefs of who should be provided citizenship of India? By excluding those of a particular faith, the BJP has taken another step in pushing India firmly on the path to become an ethnic democracy. And so, while promising the obvious on economic issues, the BJP has furthered its Hindutva plank with its latest manifesto.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a journalist and the author of ‘Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984’, ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’, and ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.