Today’s Mint carries an article on how political parties have increasingly moved to a system of “localised” manifestoes for the 2014 general election. This is a significant trend that began with Aam Aadmi Party’s Delhi election campaign where it released local manifestoes for each assembly constituency (link). The BJP followed suit in Delhi, and according to news reports, is planning to do the same for the national elections (link). The Congress under Rahul Gandhi is sticking to one manifesto, but its leaders are making the right noises about making manifesto preparation a participatory process.
At the same time, the Election Commission of India has recently started regulating election manifestoes under its Model Code of Conduct pursuant to a Supreme Court judgement. It has stated that election manifestoes should explain the “rationale” for its proposals and how these proposals will be funded. Both these developments, (a) the localization of manifestoes, and (b) the regulation of manifestoes are significant markers for electoral democracy in India.
2 Local Manifestoes
Election manifestoes represent a charter of goals that political parties will strive to achieve if voted into power. The adoption of a system of local manifestoes is both exciting as a tool of political participation, and worrying if one pauses to think of how the aggregation of local manifestoes will work to inform a national government.
On the one hand, this localization process is heartening. Indian political parties seem to be involving the electorate directly in the preparation of manifestoes, and paying greater attention to their voices. This is a marked departure from a process where, as Mint states, “a group of leaders would discuss and determine the content of the manifesto.” AAP has clearly brought in an innovative idea for running political campaigns, and it is being tested by both BJP and the Congress. It makes manifestoes more relevant, and increases (to at least some extent), the level of accountability of elected leaders as voters may have greater recollection of a local manifesto than a national one. If developed properly, this system of local manifestoes could also help make elections more issue-based, albeit at a level where local issues are more relevant. It could also improve the transmission of political messages from voters to politicians by giving the latter a clear charter to try and implement, rather than be a passive responder to powerful local interest groups.
However, while democracy is about representation, but it is also about leadership. The benefit of a centralized process of making a manifesto is that a political party takes an a priori call on what it stands for, and wishes to achieve. This manifesto can then be tempered once voters respond to the manifesto during the campaign. However, here the process of political communication emphasizes leadership and vision. It allows political parties to communicate what they stand for, rather than just try and respond to every constituency’s preference. Incorporating a process where manifesto preparation is completely decentralized creates a risk of parties losing sight of any non-negotiable principles they may stand for.
Obviously, both these arguments assume that it political parties will follow only one of these two approaches, while most political campaigns are likely a blend of both central decision-making and feedback from local constituencies. And given the inordinate amount of power leaders of political parties enjoy, a decentralized process may be the best thing to have occurred in electoral democracy recently. “Garibi hatao” was enormously successful for Indira Gandhi, but it is debatable whether she would have come up with it if the commnication of voter preferences were better. Ditto for NDA’s unsuccessful “India shining” campaign.
Lastly, this argument pre-supposes that political parties and voters take manifestoes seriously! It is in this context that the recent judgement of the Supreme Court (linked above), and the consequent actions of the Election Commission are so significant.
3 Regulation of election manifestoes
The Election Commission has brought election manifestoes under the Model Code of Conduct. In para 3 of “VIII Guidelines on Election Manifestos” of the MCC, the EC states:
(i) The election manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution and further that it shall be consistent with the letter and spirit of other provisions of Model Code of Conduct. (ii) The Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoin upon the State to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and therefore there can be no objection to the promise of such welfare measures in election manifestos. However, political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise. (iii) 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.
Para (iii) is extremely significant. It requires political parties, for the first time, to (a) explain the reason why the political party is making a particular promise, and (b) explain what resources, including finances it will utilise to fulfill these promises. This is extremely important for the following reasons:
- Political parties will have to explain why they want to do something. Ensuring they give proper reasons for wanting to do something will make it more difficult to throw in mindless freebies without any justification. Also, it will reduce room for ideological inconsistencies. Since they have to provide rationales for every promise, it will lead to greater scrutiny of the political party’s overall philosophy, and therefore require parties to think harder about what to put in the manifesto. Lastly, it will reduce incentives to throw in a laundry list of promises without any intention of fulfilling them. Manifestoes have to be readable documents and they have to help the political campaign project an easily communicable message. To ensure this is maintained, the process of picking what to promise will become more selective once the reasons for the promises also have to be included.
- Political parties will have to explain what financial resources will be used to achieve its promises. Even if at present they have to only “broadly indicate” how they wil do so, it is a milestone in nudging political parties towards being fiscally responsible. If a political party wants to spend 25% of the country’s budget on defence, it will have to show how it intends to also deliver on its promise of giving everyone free hospitals, food, television sets, electricity, water and the like at the same time. Even if the average voter is not concerned with these issues to start off, it will lead to greater expert and media scrutiny of election promises. We can at least begin to aspire for substantive debates on poll-promises rather than a game of upmanship based on who can promise how much.