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  Opinion   Columnists  23 Apr 2024  Sanjeev Ahluwalia | The choice in Elections 2024: A grand spectacle or a wake?

Sanjeev Ahluwalia | The choice in Elections 2024: A grand spectacle or a wake?

The writer is adviser, Observer Research Foundation
Published : Apr 24, 2024, 12:05 am IST
Updated : Apr 24, 2024, 12:05 am IST

Modi's "Guarantee 2024" vs Congress' "Nyay Patra" - A Clash of Narratives

Prime Minister Narendra Modi releases the BJP's election manifesto ‘Sankalp Patra’ at the party headquarters, in New Delhi, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi releases the BJP's election manifesto ‘Sankalp Patra’ at the party headquarters, in New Delhi, Sunday, April 14, 2024. (PTI Photo/Shahbaz Khan)

As in the stock market, good performance triggers the lemming’s effect in politics, forcing opponents into a panicked, reactive counter-narrative. This sums up the election manifestos of the two major Indian political parties -- the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) -- in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, with the counting of votes scheduled on June 4.

The BJP’s election manifesto -- “Modi ki Guarantee 2024: Phir Ek Bar Modi Sarkar” -- unabashedly hangs onto the coattails of its star campaigner. In the now familiar manner, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP comes to the public with outcomes supported by a decade of achievements as proof (guarantee) that future delivery will not flag. Most of the 900 million voters who press the BJP button, would be voting for what Mr Modi stands for -- meritocracy, clawing one’s way up the institutional ladder of the RSS/BJP and into executive office, directly as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. Since then, an unbroken run, from 2014, as Prime Minister. Mr Modi’s calling card is also his “report card”: an ever-expanding list of targeted benefits. The veracity of some is challenged by naysayers but they proliferate faster than the data to assess them properly.

One such is a claimed reduction in the number of poor households which does not align with 880 million people (55 per cent of the population) each getting 5 kg of cereals and some lentils, for free, every month. Nor do claims of constitutional supremacy align with the erosion of even a notional separation between the State and Hinduism. Mr Modi is pictured nursing the gold plated “Sengol”, a symbol of Hindu priestly approval of the transfer of political power from the British in 1947, given to Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin, now enshrined in the new Parliament building by Mr Modi. The BJP-RSS view the insertion of the term “secular” into the preamble of the Constitution in 1976 as a Congress ruse to play the minority card for votes. The Opposition parties play up minority fears about BJP rule.

The BJP is adept at collaborating with big business to push economic growth: Gujarat is a prime example. Nor has it neglected stepped-up welfare activities for the poor and aspirational classes. It is in overdrive to enhance the image of India overseas -- much appreciated by the 29 million Indian origin diaspora -- one such being Rishi Sunak, Sunak, for now Britain’s Prime Minister. India has shed its reticence in standing up to China’s bullying ways and Mr Modi is an indefatigable canvasser of votes and friends overseas, whether on the campaign trail, in the United Nations or in the US Congress. Domestically, by playing up growth in nominal GDP terms and India as the most populous “nation” (note: not economy or country), growth euphoria is widespread. All eyes are set on becoming the third largest economy by 2030, evoking national pride, which drives the credibility of the leadership. Growth is high, presently, relative to global trends and to some extent, which is visible in higher consumption and better infrastructure boosted by public spending. Can the “achche din” (good times) be far behind?

It is not a trivial task to contest the BJP on its record in welfare schemes, economic growth, or the euphoria around edging closer into the centre of the global economy. Elon Musk might have postponed his India visit. But there is visible global confidence that India is on the right path by integrating into the Western alliance to contain China, keeping open its traditional links with Russia and expanding its presence globally.

The Indian National Congress’ manifesto – “Nyay Patra: Haath Badlega Halath” (The hand of change and reform) is low key and sans braggadocio, the product of laborious consultations by a committee; not the outcome of a single person’s vision or predilections. But it’s a mite too plodding for a high-decibel election. It falters by not couching its vision in easily understood outcomes. It prefers the legalistic approach -- new rights laws for gig workers, domestic workers, revision of minimum wages, higher wages for MNREGA workers -- all a mite academic for the population segments they are targeting. New laws do not necessarily make a rosy future. Delays and dilatory procedures in the courts favour the well-off. Compare this with the BJP approach of getting the outcomes right, with the laws to follow.

The Congress has a welfare heavy agenda for the bottom 50 per cent of India. Farmers will get Minimum Support Price as a legal right with the BJP farm laws dumped. The minorities are reassured of the protection of their constitutional rights. A national socio-economic caste survey will determine the new, increased maximum level for reservations across all job categories, to reflect the 70 per cent share of Other Backward Castes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The efficiency of government

functioning is to be enhanced by populist measures, not targeted at key bottlenecks.

The promises include filling three million vacant government positions, filling all vacancies in the courts, doubling the number of ASHA workers (voluntary health workers) and their wages, reviving five-year planning and the Planning Commission.

The “Nyay Patra” is based on good intentions, some to unwind the supposed aberrations of BJP rule. One such is shortchanged decentralisation. Negotiations with state governments to transfer money and administrative powers to local government bodies and mayors to be elected for a five-year term. Direct transfer of Rs 0.1 million a year to each poor household (presumably to substitute for the BJPs cafeteria approach to welfare); Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Vice-Chair of the Rajya Sabha to be non-partisan by law; bail to be the default outcome for detainees, not the exception; full autonomy to constitutional bodies like the Election Commission, Information Commission, Human Rights Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor-General -- but how this is to be achieved is not clearly defined.

Neither party openly supports privatisation of government companies and banks – so both are votaries of “big government”. Does that put the BJP in the left-conservative corner (the default option for the Congress strategy earlier) versus the Congress, now in the left-liberal corner? To neutralise Narendra Modi’s humble OBC credentials, the Congress has co-opted Mallikarjun Kharge -- a veteran Karnataka Dalit leader and per recent Congress practice, more than two decades older than its key leader Rahul Gandhi. We have been there before in 2004. Visually, the BJP manifesto invites voters to a grand spectacle. The Congress’ sombre invitation is to a wake. Which would you choose?

Tags: bjp manifesto, 2024 lok sabha elections, congress manifesto