Fragmented populism

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took about a week after the Congress to release its election manifesto, raising expectations that it would outdo its national rival’s big-bang announcement of the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY) scheme to provide annual income support of Rs 72,000 to the poorest of the poor 20 per cent households. The ruling party’s manifesto contains no announcement of similar magnitude, which is a relief as the party appears to have resisted the temptation of gung-ho populism. But it is instructive that the markets spotted enough competitive populism in the manifesto to greet it with a thumbs down, just as it did with the Congress’ NYAY-led manifesto. While the Congress had focused on the poor, the BJP has addressed the aspirational, nationalist vision of India, which appeals to India’s rising middle class. Its opening proposals, therefore, talk in terms of national security, terrorism (“zero tolerance”), accelerating purchases of defence-related equipment and self-reliance, building on the popularity that it may have got after the strike on the Balakot terrorist camp. A reiteration of support for the Citizenship Amendment Bill, which has proven unpopular with its north-eastern allies, and for abrogating Articles 370 and 35A “to ensure peace in Jammu & Kashmir”, reflecting a continuing misunderstanding of the legal implications of both provisions, also finds mention.

There is no shortage of ambitious vision in this Sankalp Patra. It talks of making India a $10-trillion economy by 2032 and the world’s third-largest by 2030, and has set out a series of steps that are familiar from the recent Budget speech — simplifying the goods and services tax, lowering the tax rate and broadening compliance, and making a capital investment of Rs 100 trillion in infrastructure by 2024. Mystifyingly, promoting yoga globally forms part of this section. The manifesto includes the prime minister’s 2018 Independence Day promise to double farmers’ income by 2022, a courageous promise, given the diminishing returns for, and consequent rising unrest of, small and medium farmers over the past few years. Big commitments figure: A pucca house for everyone living in a kutcha house, piped water connections to all households by 2024, connecting all gram panchayats by high-speed optical fibre by 2022, plus a massive rural road upgrade programme.

The proposals for implicit hand-outs are scattered throughout the document: Interest-free loans and a pension scheme for small and marginal farmers and a pension scheme for small shopkeepers. The Ram mandir finds an obligatory mention as does the uniform civil code and a promise to submit a review petition before the Supreme Court on its ruling allowing women to worship at Sabarimala, though all of this is hedged by caveats about the Constitutional framework. In its attempts to cover all bases, women, tourism, sport, anti-corruption, alternative energy, tribal freedom fighters’ museums, and elder care all find a mention. It is significant that the section on “inclusive development” has a line on the “development of dignity for all minorities (Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis, etc)”. Given the all-encompassing nature of this latest statement of resolutions, it is possible to speculate on how much of this the BJP can really achieve should it come back to power or whether this is merely a proforma exercise.

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