What do you expect to see in a Congress manifesto? Big-buck schemes for rural India, right? And, what do you expect to see in a BJP manifesto? Shiny new infrastructure and big push to the economic growth rate, right?

Controversies around the much-delayed release of the BJP’s manifesto aside, the thing most striking about the manifestos for the 16th Lok Sabha elections of the two principal national parties is that they seem to have switched their traditional focus groups and approaches to public finance and the economy.

The Congress manifesto seems more ‘right’ and the BJP’s veering ‘leftwards’.

The Congress promise seems to be that it will temper its redistributive policies: It hasn’t promised a single new National Flagship Programme. The manifesto talks about a major cutback on subsidies. In fact, it promises to prioritise Central Government expenditure on infrastructure rather than ‘hand-outs’ and ‘national flagship programmes’. It ‘pledges to spend $1 trillion’ on high-speed rails, rapid transit systems, and a 100 new urban clusters — something that you would look for in the BJP’s manifesto.

The Congress manifesto delves in some detail on corporate India’s long-standing complaints against it, especially the ‘policy paralysis’. It proposes to fix the delays in project approvals through a National Investment Facilitation Authority, headed by the Prime Minister; a Bill for a National Environmental Appraisal and Monitoring Authority for ‘transparent’ and ‘time-bound’ clearances. In the wake of the ‘Vodafone’ controversy, the manifesto promises clear policy on tax treatment of foreign companies.

The manifesto goes a step beyond addressing complaints, and takes up even the holy cows with its promise of more ‘flexible’ labour laws and ‘protection’ for Indian industry from imports — something that even the BJP has not promised in its manifesto. With these and some more industry-friendly steps, the Congress says it hopes to lift economic growth from the current sub-5 per cent back to 8 per cent-plus in the next three years.

5 Ts and 3 Ds

The BJP’s manifesto, on the other hand, contains no specifics on the economic proposals. The BJP’s growth plan is to harness the ‘5 Ts’ — Tradition, Talent, Tourism, Trade and Technology — for capturing the advantages of the ‘3 Ds’ — Democracy, Demography and Demand. The plan itself reflects fuzziness. It doesn’t even mention a target gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate. Neither does it touch upon disinvestment. On the contrary, it proposes to set up a new public sector unit: The Organic Farming and Fertiliser Corporation of India. Perhaps too wary of its ‘India Shining’ fiasco image, the BJP has, in its manifesto, devoted more space and priority to ‘welfarism’. “Our government will be a government of the poor, marginalised and the left behind,’’ it says.

Whereas the Congress proposes to pass on the financial burden of its languishing national flagship programmes of UPA I and UPA II to the States so that it can spend more on infrastructure, the BJP says just the opposite: “We will empower Panchayat Raj Institutions with extensive devolution of the 3Fs — Functions, Functionaries and Funds.’’

Rural rejuvenation

The BJP manifesto promises “a full-fledged programme for rural rejuvenation” and that “will roll out a massive low-cost housing programme to ensure that by the time the nation completes 75 years of its independence, every family will have a pucca house of its own”. It promises a “Pradhan Mantri Gram Sinchayee Yojana”. It even promises to establish “Institutes of Technology for Rural Development”. Despite all its criticism of the Congress’s rights-based approach, the BJP clearly says it won’t abandon any of the Congress’ entitlement laws. Instead, it promises to build on them.

The Congress, on the other hand, has indicated that it is ready to move its focus away from rural India. Its manifesto says that the Congress’ promise ahead of the 2004 elections was “A New Deal for Rural India” and the mandate for it in 2009 was to “safeguard and advance the interests of India’s farmers”. Its election strategy in the last two elections was, thus, focused on rural Indians.

For 2014, however, the Congress has a new election strategy and target voter group. The manifesto promise is “to bring around two-thirds of our population — the skilled hands that build India — into the middle-class….” If the 2004 and 2009 manifestos had promises for rural Indians — entitlements such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Food — this time Congress has compiled a brand new set of rights for its new focus group.

What stands out for the Congress in these polls is the marked difference in its approach to the strategies for the new vote bank. The Congress seems to want to appear to be tempering its redistributive policies with a BJP-style take on people’s empowerment. “These rights will provide an economic platform for people below the middle-class to transform their lives and to transform India primarily through their own effort, not through any hand-outs of government,” the manifesto says.

Besides corruption and inflation, the strongest criticism of the ten years of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance’s governance has been on its poverty-alleviation programmes being nothing more than instruments for dishing out ‘doles’ to poor voters.

In fact, the manifesto goes on to say “Given the limited resources, and the many claims on resources, we must choose the subsidies that are absolutely necessary and give them to absolutely deserving.” Subsidies find no mention in the BJP manifesto. And then the Congress manifesto springs an absolute unthinkable: “We will consider introducing sensible user charges…for better quality services, for example, uninterrupted power…” This, when it badly lost the assembly elections in Delhi on among other things to the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Admi Party’s promise of water and electricity tariff cuts.

The Congress manifesto doesn’t promise a single new flagship programme. Even on the existing ones, it says “States have the fiscal space to bear a reasonable proportion of the financial costs of implementing flagship programmes and must willingly do so, so that the Central Government can allocate more resources for subjects such as defence, railways, national highways and telecommunications that are its exclusive responsibility.”

Though it is not clear why States would want to take on greater financial burden of programmes that were conceived by the Congress at the Centre, but the point, however, is that the Congress has proposed to prioritise spending the Central Government funds on infrastructure rather than ‘hand-outs’ and ‘national flagship programmes’. Specifically, it “pledges to spend $1 trillion on upgrading India’s infrastructure in the coming decade.” What will this include? High-speed rail for all million-plus cities, 100 new urban clusters, regional rapid transit systems and so on.

To keep a check on the Congress’ infamous tendency for profligacy, the manifesto proposes to amend the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) Act “to codify a credible commitment of the government to achieve a fiscal deficit of 3 per cent of GDP by 2016-17 and stay below that always.” It further proposes to set up an independent FRBM Council that will submit an annual report to Parliament on the progress made on achieving fiscal commitments.

What does the BJP manifesto promise on fiscal consolidation? The single sentence: “We will strictly implement fiscal discipline without compromising on funds availability for development work and asset creation.” If Congress proposes to devote 3 per cent of GDP to health care, BJP promises 6 per cent of GDP to education.

And, on labour laws? The BJP manifesto promises a review, and that “We will ensure that the interests of labour in the unorganised sector are protected. For the organised sector, we propose to encourage industry owners and labour to embrace the concept of Industry Family” — a promise that could be mistaken to belong to a Left party document. The BJP also proposes to set up a ‘Workers Bank’ and to strengthen the pension and health insurance safety nets for all kinds of labourers.

While, the Congress has promised tax benefits for manufacturing of hardware and software to take on imports of popular brands for gadget presumably the Apples and the Samsungs; the only tax benefit the BJP promises is for setting up of old age homes.

If the Congress is grappling with the Modi factor, the BJP is still fighting the ghost of India Shining.

puja.mehra@thehindu.co.in

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Manifestoes 2014March 27, 2014

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