Election manifestos of political parties tend to promise all things to all people. Promises cost nothing, and most manifestos would typically have some takeaways for the rich, the middle class and the poor in varying proportions. Predictably, the Congress election manifesto makes no radical break from the past. The aam aadmi is not mentioned specifically, presumably because the term was hijacked by the Aam Aadmi Party, but she is very much present in the manifesto. The aam aadmi comprises the worlds of both the middle class and the poor, and the Congress manifesto with promises of creating 10 crore jobs, providing a job quota for the economically weaker sections without affecting the existing caste-based reservation, and establishing rights to health, housing, pension and social security, seeks to coalesce the two worlds. The effort, the manifesto clearly states, is to lift the bottom two-thirds of the population — “the skilled hands that build India” — into the middle class by ensuring economic security and minimum standards of living. This is part of the rights-based approach to development that the United Progressive Alliance governments adopted through legislation on the rights to information, education, and food in the last ten years. Of course, there is no mention of how these schemes would find their funding, but then, a manifesto is not a budget, and election promises are not generally taken as more than statements of intent.
If the poor and the middle class were wooed with a rights-based welfare agenda, the corporate houses and the managerial class could take comfort from the manifesto’s stress on a high growth trajectory; investment in power, transport and other development infrastructure of one trillion dollars over one decade; and avoidance of retroactive taxation, which was seen as deterring foreign investment. But if the Congress were to be judged by its manifesto alone, it would have no problem at all. Unlike the principal Opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and the energetic new party, the AAP, the Congress would be judged by its performance in government in the last decade, and not by the promises it holds out. The party’s record is enough to take the shine off many of the promises listed in the manifesto. Some of the promises made in previous manifestos that remain unfulfilled have found mention again. The promise of affirmative action for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in the private sector thus rings hollow. A party that was at the head of the government for the last 10 years should have fought the election on achievements, not promises. Words cannot always make up for performance.