The manifestos announced dwell in a surreal world, the world which has been conjured up with ludicrous premises and unadulterated sanctimoniousness.
If cricket is full of glorious uncertainties, Indian politics abounds in inglorious certainties. The manifestos announced by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress demonstrate for the umpteenth time that whichever party or coalition may win the forthcoming general elections, the nation would be the loser.
To use the American author Thomas Sowell’s term, politics has completely transmogrified into the art of the impossible. Let’s begin with what the manifestos are not. They are not about anything real; they dwell in a surreal world, the world which has been conjured up with ludicrous premises, good intentions, and unadulterated sanctimoniousness.
The BJP’s manifesto, titled “Sankalp Patra”, is suffused with the nationalist and welfarist themes. Which was quite expected. What was equally expected was that there would be nothing about economic reforms in it. Again the expectation was met.
High on patriotism, the BJP pledges a “zero-tolerance approach to terrorism”. The manifesto says, “Our security doctrine will be guided by our national security interest only. This is exemplified by the surgical strikes and the air strikes carried out recently. We will firmly continue our policy of ‘zero tolerance’ against terrorism and extremism and will continue to follow our policy of giving a free hand to our security forces in combating terrorism.”
It discusses the entire gamut of national defence and security, from the requirements of armed forces and strengthening of the defence sector to modernisation: “We will continue to take forward the process of modernizing the Central Armed Police Forces to further increase their capacity and readiness and enable them to effectively combat internal security challenges.”
It has also promised “police reforms in the states so as to enable the state police forces to deal with new types of crimes like cyber-crime and help them to be more sensitive to the citizens, especially the weak and vulnerable sections of the society”. Very impressive on the face of it, but in the past the Finance Ministry had been reluctant to loosen purse strings, despite Home Minister Rajnath Singh himself pleading for police modernisation. One wonders what Singh would have thought finalising these sentences as the manifesto committee chairperson.
Money, or lack of it, has been a problem for defence and security, but the ruling party has shown no sign of giving up profligacy. Now it has promised to extend the recently launched Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana (PM-Kisan) to all. Announced in the last Interim Budget to provide financial assistance to farmers owning land up to 2 hectares, now it “will further expand the coverage of the scheme to all the farmers in the country”.
It is a well-known and widely accepted fact that at the heart of farm distress lies the lack of reforms. Agriculture is one of the areas which have been practically bypassed by liberalisation; it is still governed by a web of rules and regulations that have arrested growth and development in the sector, perpetuated backwardness, and choked enterprising spirit. Instead of assuring the farmer to free him from the yoke of discredited policies, the ruling party has promised even more measures that are responsible for his misery in the first place.
The BJP manifesto is very bullish about the future: “We aspire to make India the third largest economy of the world by 2030. This implies that we commit to make India a US$5 trillion economy by 2025 and US$10 trillion economy by 2032.” But how? By more populism? But faster growth is predicated upon higher investment which, in turn, depends upon a sound policy framework; populism is not compatible with this framework. But the saffron party—indeed the entire political class—wants both. A square can’t be a circle and vice-versa, but it wants to square the circle.
Ditto with the Congress. Party president Rahul Gandhi called the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (Nyay), the minimum income guarantee scheme, the “biggest idea” of the manifesto. “I will promise Rs 72,000 per year to the poor and will deliver it.” Rahul said.
This is not all. The Congress manifesto says, “Immediately after forming the governments in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, as promised, the 3 Congress governments waived the loans of farmers. Congress promises to waive the outstanding farm loans in other states as well.”
Now, the cost of Nyay alone could be Rs 360,000 crore per year. And then there are tens of thousands of crores of farm loans. Where would all this money come from? There is little in the manifesto except unexceptional remarks. And yet, the grand old party is confident that it would be fiscally prudent. “Congress promises to reverse the BJP Government’s fiddling with the target of fiscal deficit. Congress promises to achieve the target of 3 per cent of GDP by 2020-21 and remain under that limit. The revenue deficit will be contained, as far as possible, under 1 per cent of GDP. Off-Budget and extra-Budget borrowings will be faithfully reported with the justification for such debt and the means of servicing and repaying such debt.”
What makes this claim amusing is the fact that the Congress’ manifesto committee was headed by former Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, who himself has been accused of, among other things, off-Budget jugglery. On the more substantive aspect of compatibility between the two objectives, Nyay and fiscal responsibility, it is the same old story: squaring the circle.
In the real world, impossible is impossible, but in the surreal world of Indian politics, impossible is nothing. Or, as the BJP puts it, impossible is possible. Interestingly, its arch-rival couldn’t agree more on this issue.