We need to talk about this Manifesto

A close look at the BJP’s election manifestoes from 1996 shows a consistent pattern of fielding the core Hindutva issues. What does the failure to present a serious Manifesto this time mean for the party that hopes to lead the next government?

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

Published - April 07, 2014 01:06 am IST

No official statement has come from the Bharatiya Janata Party to explain its strange decision to release, in the face of the Election Commission of India’s displeasure, its Manifesto on April 7, 2014 — the first of the nine ‘Poll Days’ constituting the 16th general election.

Election manifestoes are no big deal. That’s the message seemingly conveyed by the party that, according to most opinion polls, will form the next coalition government in New Delhi, assuming of course that it can solve its ‘last mile’ problem by finding enough allies to connect to the magic number of 272 Lok Sabha seats.

The big deal is the ‘Vikas Purush’ avatar of a former outlier, Chief Minister Narendra Modi, whose campaign machine has done everything in its power to obfuscate or draw attention away from the past, 2002 and all that. Who needs a Manifesto when there is MODIMANTRA, which actually heads the list of ‘Core Issues’ at the BJP’s official website, www.bjp.org? Who needs a Manifesto when there is the ‘Gujarat Model’ of governance, development, and social engineering that the rest of India needs to aspire to? (This message seems to fly notwithstanding the availability of a growing literature that reveals that when you look at various development and social indicators, Gujarat is no model State.)

Message and reality What is clear by now is that the message is quite different from the reality: the BJP’s failure to unveil its Manifesto weeks after most other parties, national and regional, have come out with their mostly elaborate exercises is no small deal. So what’s the real reason for this negation of the very idea of an election Manifesto, which is meant to appeal to the heart and mind of voters?

Fortunately, pro-BJP voices in the news media are more forthcoming than the party’s present high command. One of them, R. Jagannathan, editor-in-chief of Network 18 group publications, tackles the question in a provocative opinion piece titled “Modi is the manifesto: Why BJP doesn’t need a hefty document.” At the end of the article, Mr. Jagannathan comes to the real point: “Manifestoes can be constricting”; they can act as “a tripwire for a party that hopes to win and form a government.”

In other words, an election Manifesto, if taken too seriously, can spell trouble for the future, especially when the party seems close enough to taking power. The less it reveals about – the more it camouflages – the ideology and character of the party, its real programme, policy agenda, and intentions, its stand on sensitive and highly divisive issues, the better. In the case of the BJP today, what evidently needs to be underplayed, if not kept out of public view, is the Sangh Parivar’s well-known repertoire of core issues: the concept of Hindutva; the project of building a Ram Temple in Ayodhya (on the grave of the Babri Masjid); the abrogation of Article 370, which confers a special constitutional status on Jammu & Kashmir; coming up with a Uniform Civil Code; banning religious conversions, cow slaughter, and so forth.

The irony of it all seems to have escaped general attention. The BJP, after all, is a highly ideologised political entity. It is a member of a volatile family, the “Sangh Parivar,” which is “nurtured” by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological or conceptual brain directing family affairs. To represent intra-familial relationships in this right-wing communal formation, there is no need to go to any external source. Here is how the History section of the BJP’s official website, www.bjp.org, presents the relationships: “The Bharatiya Janata Party is today the most prominent member of the family of organisations known as the ‘Sangh Parivar’ and nurtured by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)…History is the philosophy of nations…the Sangh Parivar has a very clear…conception of Indian history…[The RSS] has no doubt about Hindu identity and culture being the mainstay of the Indian nation and of Indian society.”

The BJP has come a long way since 1984, when it suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of a Congress that rode a sympathy wave to an unprecedented electoral triumph. The BJP’s highly ideological nature, its organisational strength, and the depth of reserves provided by its membership of the Parivar explain its resilience, its ability to re-invent itself in accordance with changing socio-political circumstances. Historically, it began to taste electoral success only after trading its vague and somewhat indeterminate right-wing platform of its formative years (1980-1986) for the platform of aggressive Hindutva, adopted at its Palampur session in 1989.

Core Hindutva issues A close look at the BJP’s election manifestoes from 1996, which began the era of the party bidding seriously for power at the Centre, shows a consistent pattern of fielding the core Hindutva issues, with 1999 constituting the sole exception. The language, the style, and the treatment of the issues vary but the core issues are embedded in the manifestoes. The ideologues evidently saw to this, despite the reported sporadic attempts of A.B. Vajpayee to moderate or soften the message.

The BJP’s 1998 Manifesto is nothing if not outspoken on all the core issues. It speaks of “Sanatana Dharma [as]…synonymous with Indian nationalism” and commits the party to the concept of “One Nation, One People and One Culture.” It proclaims that “the evolution of Hindutva in politics is the antidote to the creation of vote banks and appeasement of sectional interests.” Asserting that “Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness,” it commits the party to facilitating “the construction of a magnificent Shri Ram Mandir at Ram Janmasthan in Ayodhya where a makeshift temple already exists.” It promises to “explore all consensual, legal and constitutional means to facilitate the construction of Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya.” As for the special constitutional status of Jammu & Kashmir, the party’s 1998 Manifesto issues a threat: “The BJP will abrogate Article 370 of the Constitution.” Further, it proposes to “entrust the Law Commission” with the formulation of “a Uniform Civil Code based on the progressive practices from all traditions.”

There was no BJP Manifesto for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. Instead, the newly formed National Democratic Alliance came out with a “National Agenda for Governance,” which included none of the core Hindutva issues.

But broad alliance considerations did not deter the BJP from fielding these highly divisive issues in its next general election Manifesto, which was titled “Vision Document – 2004.” It expresses fealty to “the philosophy of Integral Humanism as enunciated by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya” and to Hindutva, claiming that “Hindutva is not a religious or exclusivist concept” but is “inclusive, integrative…” Among the 2004 Manifesto’s highlights is reaffirmation of the party’s “commitment to the construction of a Ram Temple in Ayodhya,” if necessary through a judicial verdict but preferably through a process of speeded-up dialogue between parties to the dispute. The demand for the abrogation of Article 370 does not find a place in this Manifesto but the demand for “Autonomous Regional Councils for Jammu and Ladakh with adequate financial and administrative powers” does.

Hardening stance The BJP’s 2009 Manifesto saw a hardening of the core Hindutva stance. It extols the “Hindu world view.” It includes a paean to the Ayodhya movement, which had been led by the party’s prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani, as “the biggest mass movement in India since Independence,” a movement that “initiated a powerful debate on cultural nationalism and the true meaning of secularism.” Claiming that “there is an overwhelming demand of the people in India and abroad to have a grand temple at the birth place of Shri Ram in Ayodhya,” it commits the BJP to exploring “all possibilities, including negotiations and judicial proceedings, to facilitate the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya.” The 2009 Manifesto reaffirms the BJP’s commitment to the abrogation of Article 370. And it proposes, “as a first step,” to “set up a Commission to draft a Uniform Civil Code, drawing upon the best traditions and harmonising them with the modern times.”

It is not as though the BJP did not do homework on its Manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In fact, its preparations began earlier than other major parties, with the October 2013 launch of a website inviting suggestions from voters for its Manifesto. Given the historical background, it would be naïve to think that the failure of the BJP to come up with a serious Manifesto in time, on account of unresolved tensions between the old guard in the BJP Manifesto Committee and the aggressive Modi team, means the side-lining of core Hindutva in the event of the NDA forming the next government. Recent developments, including the Parivar’s highly communal campaign in Uttar Pradesh and Amit Shah’s inflammatory rhetoric addressing a Jat audience, are intimations that the BJP, “the most prominent member” of the family of Hindutva organisations, is not about to change its spots.

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