Thursday, April 10, 2014

On the BJP's Manifesto

After much delay, the BJP finally released its manifesto for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, ironically on the first day of voting (in upper Assam and west Tripura). While the so-called mainstream media has latched onto the issue of temples and cows, the document is actually well-written and addresses a myriad of issues that India faces and its proposed solutions. Of course, manifestos have become somewhat of a joke in Indian elections because no party really tries to fulfill them - in fact, in Tamil Nadu for example, impossible promises are made. Still, since they're there, it is worthwhile to comment on them.

A large part of the BJP's manifesto is built around infrastructure and administrative reforms. This is not surprising given that Narendra Modi has made these two and particularly the first the centerpiece of his campaign - a welcome sign, of course. The party has put in place a proposal to built 100 cities to ease the congestion in India's metros and proposed to make them 'smart cities,' whatever that means. This idea looks like it's taken out of China's own experience, although truth be told, the US did the same thing when it was still a developing nation. In addition, the party proposes to link all the unlinked parts of India - Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and a majority of the Northeastern states - by rail and a highway network. Both strategically and as a matter of national development, this is an extremely important proposal. Certainly, the BJP will be able to perform better than the UPA in terms of highways: it is almost impossible for a government to do as badly as the UPA has done on that count. On railways, it might be too ambitious, but the NDA regime did built a lot of physical infrastructure in its time, so there might just be a reason to be optimistic (even though it was Nitish Kumar at the helm then).

The golden piece of the infrastructure proposals is what the party has called the Diamond Quadrilateral Project - metro connectivity via high speed rail (HSR). Much has been said about HSR in India and very little has happened, but the technology exists and it is possible to do it provided there is enough political will. And that is precisely why the BJP above all other parties stands even a half-decent chance of building one mile of HSR in India.

On administrative reforms, the party rightly stresses on extending the National e-Governance Program and using IT to curb corruption. Here, it might be taking a leaf out of Tamil Nadu's PDS system, which makes use of IT to mitigate corruption and does a pretty good job of it. A similar example is the Chhatisgarh system. The manifesto does seem to acknowledge that ending corruption is going to be a hard challenge and cannot be done overnight - as the AAP would have us believe. Since the Lokpal Bill was already passed, it was not included in the manifesto but obviously, if elected, the BJP would have to sort out the appointment of the first Lokpal, which was completely vitiated by the Congress.

The manifesto makes promises on encouraging entrepreneurship by simplifying procedures, eliminating old laws, initiating some reforms in labor and reforming the tax system, including working to bring in a GST. Implicitly, it promises that there will be no retrospective taxation, which has a disastrous move by the then FM Pranab Mukherjee. These are all a standard part of a right-wing manifesto, of course, as are the parts on Foreign Policy & Defense, where the party seems all set to invite FDI in defense manufacturing as well as take a much tougher line with China (possibly to the great joy of smaller states in Southeast Asia and Japan). The refusal to allow FDI in mutli-brand retail is a let-down, but it does promises FDI if virtually every other sector. That promise does sound hollow but then, it's just a promise.

Finally, the party promised to protect and 'empower' (a rather abused term now) women and youth from the Northeast, which is welcome but hard to believe. A promise of more IITs, IIMs and AIIMS was expected after Arjun Singh's disastrous policy found electoral favor and indeed, it is there. Overall, the manifesto disappoints in some areas but in most, it is strong on vision. Its stress on infrastructure, jobs and development (it promises to link NREGA to asset creation, a pressing need) while also passing a brief fig leaf to the Hindu right. It also speaks of educating minorities, which any intelligent Muslim voter should be happy about. A good document and hopefully they will be able to implement all of it. 

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