The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) released its manifesto for the Lok Sabha elections on Monday, three days before the first phase of polling. Drafting a vision for the future, or making a set of commitments, for a party which has been in power for five years is a challenge because it gives rise to an obvious question: why have these promises not been fulfilled in the preceding five years? The BJP has addressed this question by focusing on both what it considers to be its achievements since 2014, especially in the realm of rural welfare and infrastructure, and the unfinished tasks ahead. This ties in with the larger pitch that PM Narendra Modi has been making in his campaign rallies: of having fulfilled basic needs; and seeking an opportunity to fulfil aspirations.
There are three significant strands in the manifesto. The first is what the BJP clearly considers its strength in this election: nationalism or national security. It speaks of decisive action against terrorism, and taking steps to end infiltration. It promises to speed up defence purchases — though this will raise questions about how defence spending is not commensurate with its needs. The manifesto reinforces the party’s commitment to the Citizenship Amendment Bill, and while the BJP has sought to reassure the Northeast that its concerns about an assault on its distinct identity will be taken care of, this is bound to generate a backlash in the region once again. The BJP has also reiterated its traditional position on Jammu and Kashmir: of abrogating Articles 370 and 35A. This stand of the BJP manifesto is primarily aimed at appealing to its core base, projecting Modi as the only leader capable of making India secure, and the party as the only force committed to nationalism.
The second major strand of the manifesto is its focus on rural India. A consistent critique against this government over the past few years has been the fact that there is agrarian distress, and farmer incomes have actually dipped. The BJP once again reiterated its promise of doubling farmer income by 2022, a claim most experts are sceptical of. But more specifically, it said that it would invest Rs 25 lakh crore over the next five years in rural India; it would expand the PM Kisan scheme — of providing Rs 6000 annually to small and marginal farmers with land holdings of up to 2 hectares — to each and every farmer, and it would provide interest free loans for up to Rs 1 lakh. With these promises, the BJP is clearly trying to address what could be a vulnerability vis a vis its electoral prospects in rural areas. But whether it indeed leads to a much needed structural transformation in agriculture and whether fiscal implications of expanding the Kisan scheme have been thought through is not clear.
The third strand is the manifesto’s promises on the economy and employment. This once again has been an area of perceived weakness for the government, even though the accuracy of data has been contested. The BJP has spoken of further improving India’s rank in the ease of doing business; improving the share of manufacturing in GDP; increasing exports; supporting entrepreneurs; identifying champion sectors in which younger people can be productively engaged. India indeed needs all this. But the BJP will have to do a lot more in credibly communicating how India will address its unemployment crisis.