The Bharatiya Janata Party’s election manifesto offers glimpses of its understanding of India and its vision for India. It is a reiteration of the party’s three-point agenda of nationalism, welfare of the poor and good governance. Prepared after consultation with a wide range of people and released days before the polls start, the manifesto is to that extent a welcome contrast with 2014, when the BJP did not release it until the first phase of polling was under way. A manifesto is important not for being a catalogue of vote-catching, tall promises, but as a document that explains the direction that a party proposes for the country. The BJP manifesto needs scrutiny for more reasons. It must be judged against its performance in government for five years and also in comparison with the manifestos of other parties, particularly the Congress. In promising welfare for the people, economic growth and material development, the BJP manifesto is not drastically different from the others. But its clarity on what makes the party distinct is remarkable. The BJP’s deep yearning for the reshaping of India into a cultural monolith, which it projects as essential for progress, is clear.
Unlike in 2009 and 2014, this manifesto is not expansive on the party’s cultural agenda, but its stated resolve to “mainstream” the people of the Northeast, its hardline approach on Jammu and Kashmir, and the recurring theme of an unforgiving state as the hallmark of a ‘new India’ all point towards a hardened nationalist course if the party were to retain power. While the BJP has its alliances, it is also emphatic in its pursuit of a majority of its own. The manifesto promises a Ram temple in Ayodhya, a national registry of citizens for the entire country, and citizenship to Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs fleeing persecution in neighbouring countries. The BJP government has taken significant measures during the last five years to advance this Hindutva agenda. The emphasis on Narendra Modi is also unmistakable — his name figures 32 times, while ‘BJP’ figures 20 times. The manifesto is boastful of the government’s performance on the national security front, and runs down all previous governments to the extent that it would appear that India assumed superpower status and made strides in sectors ranging from space technology to higher education almost exclusively on Mr. Modi’s watch. Yet, the BJP manifesto does not dwell too much on Mr. Modi’s single most momentous decision: demonetisation. The document claims to be an account of the current challenges, and an ambitious vision to be realised before 2047, the 100th anniversary of India’s independence. Yet, it does not mention religious harmony. As a vision statement, the BJP’s manifesto is limited in its understanding, and blinkered in its vision.