Promises do serve a political purpose; of grabbing attention and amplifying appeal.
A promise to make India safer by turning it into a space superpower with Mission Shakti, a promise of Rs 6,000 per month to five crore families living on an income of less than Rs 12,000 a month are neither false nor true. And they will remain ambiguous assurances until the moment when these are proved true. It’s election time and promises are meant to be made.
Promises do serve a political purpose; of grabbing attention and amplifying appeal. Some promises are offhand and incomplete, like the famous “jumla” of Narendra Modi in the campaign in 2014 with his promise of Rs 15 lakhs in every Indian’s bank account; while some promises, like the minimum income guarantee of Rs 6,,000 per month, are awkward reminders that inequality and injustice are real and widespread even after the promised “Garibi Hatao” of 1971, even after India was declared “shining” in 2004, and Narendra Modi pushed India one step up the ladder, to number five, on the list of largest economies.
The question is — does a missile system make India safer or does ending poverty make it safer? Regional parties and the Congress, as the principal party in the Opposition, are at a disadvantage as none of them can pop rabbits like the ruling BJP, because national defence is the exclusive domain of the guy in residence at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg. The fact that Narendra Modi needed India to go through a few short hours of suspense, waiting to hear his important announcement, is also a measure of just how hard he is fighting to turn the spotlight back on himself.
Like others in the past, this election too is a battle — the difference is that in the field are a lot of parties, at least 25 in the anti-BJP camp, and another 20-odd in the BJP camp, with the imagination, empathy and capability of making promises to the Indian electorate, and so turning this into a mother of all battles. Promises are being popped to cork the genie, that is, voters with the power to decide the future.
Mission Shakti versus Nyuntam Aay Yojana; Prime Minister Kisan Samman Yojana’s paltry Rs 6,000 a year versus Rythu Bandhu in Telangana worth Rs 10,000 per acre, KALIA or the mouthful — Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation — in Odisha worth Rs 25,000 over five seasons to Rs 10,000 every year for the most vulnerable, Krishak Bandhu in West Bengal worth Rs 5,000 per crop per acre, is just one category of deliverables. To get ahead of the race, PMKSY has delivered two crore farmers Rs 2,000 in their bank accounts, whereas NYAY is just a promise that will be fulfilled only if the Congress comes to power. And then there are the unemployment support schemes: in Telangana, it is Rs 3,016 a month, while in Tamil Nadu, the DMK has promised one crore jobs to unemployed youth for the maintenance of roads and highways. And then there are the promises of reservation - for admission to higher education and jobs that should fulfil the expectations of educated young people. In this category, the Narendra Modi strategy of promising 10 per cent reservations for the economically weak was seriously clever, as it tilted the Congress and the anti-BJP off balance. Different parties reacted differently; Mayawati and the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Congress and Akhilesh Yadav and the Samajwadi Party had all promised the same thing without delivering on it; so had Ram Vilas Paswan and the Lok Janashakti Party and the Republic Party. Not to support it would have made them outcastes; to support it was a trap sprung by the BJP to put the Opposition in an awkard position.
If, as Arun Jaitley declared, NYAY was a “bluff”, and as Rajiv Kumar of the Niti Aayog said it was a typically Congress trait to promise everything for the elections, then the BJP needs to ask itself what about the states that have promised and delivered on schemes like Rythu Bandhu and KALIA? If Telangana and Odisha could afford these and other schemes, should not the Centre consider the expected cost of 1.9 per cent of GDP, or `3.6 lakh crores, as entirely just and hence affordable?
The problem with the cornucopia of promises and schemes is that whoever is on the other side promptly sits down with a calculator and declares that it is either too expensive or impossible to achieve, because of the difficulties of delivery or poor design. By that reckoning, Mamata Banerjee, according to Rahul Gandhi, makes “fake promises” and Narendra Modi “lies to the people”; while according to Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee runs a “Triple T” state - Trinamul, Tolabaz, Tax, and the Congress has failed “in the last 70 years” to lift India out of poverty, build infrastructure, deliver a surgical strike, pummel Pakistan, operationalise an anti-missile defence system and make India a truly nuclear power. And, in the assessment of the Opposition, Narendra Modi has done little but advertised a lot, costing the Indian exchequer an estimated `4,343 crores and has spread “fear” by fomenting hate.
Election politics is all about “Trust me. I can make you richer, safer, better”. In 2019, the reality is that there are so many parties and leaders saying the same thing, including the BJP, which is trying to say it loudest and most. In its position of being challenged, the BJP at the Centre and the regional parties in their states face the same problem — convincing voters that their promises are more trustworthy than those of their rivals, whichever party or parties that might be. The fierceness of the competition and its relentless compulsions indicate that not a single party in India feels confident about the unpredictable voter. The nervousness of the political class suggests that no party has a clue on what it is that the voter, who is not blindly committed, wants from the next government. It’s a game of blind man’s buff, with the voters standing around, while the political class blunders around in circles.