Opinion: 11 reasons why voters must look beyond political manifestos

As the Karnataka assembly elections get underway, a Bengaluru citizen raises pertinent questions about the need for a party manifesto at all.

Political pundits always insist that voting is our sacred duty, and all voters must vote. They say that if the voters turn out in large numbers, it will force the political parties to promise more in their manifesto, and also strive harder to fulfill those promises.

Complete coverage on Karnataka Assembly Elections 2023: Information that you will need to make an informed choice

This view is too simplistic, and does not look at the democratic process beyond the election.  

Firstly, just the existence of a nice-looking manifesto does not automatically result in a vibrant democracy. There are no self-correcting forces that ensure that every party makes rational and economically wise promises in its manifesto. Further, we cannot prevent the government from taking a decision that is not mentioned in its manifesto, or which may even contravene its manifesto. 

Secondly, there are no checks and balances to force the government to perform at its peak, and to take optimal decisions at all times. Indeed, there are high chances that the government will take a populist decision, even if it ruins the economy or the social fabric.

Read more: Karnataka Assembly polls 2023: What the manifestos of national parties promise

Thirdly, we also have other factors that affect our democracy. While our democracy is new, our civilization is ancient, which has its own ingrained customs. We also have a long history of invasions and intercultural conflicts. Finally, we have socioeconomic factors such as industrialization, globalization, and urbanization. These factors have a major impact on our democracy.

We must address these factors to improve the quality of our democracy.

These factors are discussed below:

1. Our average voter has become better suited for democracy, but still being ignored.

The very first question is, why is there not sufficient public discourse before the parties make their manifestos?

The answer may well lie in our history. Our first brush with democracy came in 1861, when the Indian Councils Act allowed only the wealthy landowners and educated men to vote. All others, including women, were not allowed to vote. The voting rights were extended to all adults only in 1947. Thus, our society has a long history of not participating in a democracy.

Even in 1947, most voters were incapable of participating meaningfully in the democratic process: They were illiterate and ill-informed about the socioeconomic state of the country. They faced considerable pressure from their combined family (clan) and society. Thus, parties in those days did not involve the citizens in their manifesto-making.

But our society has changed a lot since then, and all of these factors have made the citizens more capable of participating in democratic process:

ParameterIn 1947Today
Literacy rate12%77%
Higher educationNIL27%
GDP2% of global trade 5th largest economy globally
Economic formRural, agrarianUrban, commerce+industry
JobsTraditional, hereditaryModern, skill-based
Middle classNoneLarge middle class
Family formLarge combined familyNuclear family
CommunicationWord of mouth, rumoursSocial media

In the last 75 years, the typical Indian voter is becoming increasingly more literate, tech-savvy, urbanized, free of pressure from family members and caste, has more disposable income, and also has global exposure (which shapes his ideas about economics and democracy). 

The migration to cities and nuclear family means the voters’ decisions are more individualistic, rather than clan-based or caste-based.

This transformation augers well for democracy. 

Yet, there is no mechanism to leverage the enhanced capabilities of the voter in our democratic process. The voter is still left out of the decision-making process, and given no choices or explanations for the choice made by the government.

Read more: The dance of democracy has miles to go

2. Our political leaders still take unilateral decisions, although they are no longer exalted 

In the early 20th century, there was a vast difference between the average Indian and our top political leaders: While a vast majority of Indians were poor and illiterate, our leaders were highly educated. In fact, most of them were educated abroad, and many of them were lawyers. Many of these leaders were also prolific writers in an era where the general population could not even read.

As a result of this stark difference, the public stood in awe of these leaders, and let them take all the critical decisions without demanding justifications, or questioning the details.

Even if the leaders wanted, there were no communication channels to reach out to the illiterate and poor citizens living in remote villages.

But today, we have much higher literacy rate and education level. We have a huge pool of experts in all fields: economics, management, and engineering. Our population also is well-informed about the world affairs, thanks to the Internet and social media.

Thus, our the leaders have lost their edge over the population, and yet they continue to take all critical decisions unilaterally.

We must introduce a system which initiates a public discourse before taking any critical decision.

BJP leaders at a press conference releasing the party manifesto for the Karnataka assembly elections 2023
BJP leaders released the party manifesto for the Karnataka assembly elections 2023. Pic: JPNadda/Twitter

3. Our executive has remained unaccountable since the British days

Regardless of what is promised in the manifesto, the actual delivery is always through the Executive. Therefore, we need an active and responsive Executive. Unfortunately, our Executive does not meet this requirement, because of legacy issues as explained below:

Before 1947, we did not have democracy at all. Before the British came, our society was ruled by kings. The common man had no interaction with them. The kings had no commitment toward their public. On the contrary, they used to impose levies on the public, and could punish any person at whim. As a result, the public used to stay out of the way of kings, ministers and even courtiers.

When the British arrived, the real control was exercised by the British ICS officers. The Crown formed a council by inviting a few Indian elites, but their role was limited to making recommendations. More often than not, the ICS overruled such recommendations. The British bureaucracy was accountable to the Crown, not to the Indian public. In addition, we had 565 princely states, which ruled over their own territories. Thus, even during the British rule, the executive remained insulated from the public. 

Even when the ICS was converted to IAS, the old system continued: They did not listen to the MPs and ministers. In fact, TT Krishnamachari (India’s Finance Minister) made a speech in the Parliament in the 1960s, in which he famously quipped that “IAS stands for ‘I Am Sorry’“.

Even today, the departments operate in a totally opaque manner:

  • They do not have a public charter (mission, objectives, governance structure, operational policies, long-term goals and annual goals.)
  • They do not have a well-defined road map to achieve their goals.
  • They do not have performance metrics to show their effectiveness and efficiency.
  • They do not publish data to show how much of these targets are actually achieved, why some targets could not be met, and what is being done to correct that shortfall.

Most recently, PM Modi criticized the “babu culture” (a bureaucratic culture characterized by red tape, corruption, nepotism, and a general lack of efficiency). The powerful IAS Association objected to this comment, but has not shown any readiness for reforms to shed that image.

A democracy cannot work if the executive is willfully dysfunctional, or remains uncontrollable.

4. The political parties cannot get united in supporting public good

By nature, politics is a zero-sum game: When one party gains, the others lose. Therefore, every party is always mindful not to give away political advantage to the other parties.

Thus, the ruling party would like to take sole credit for any achievement. By the same token, the opposition parties would try to belittle that achievement by nitpicking. They also try to prevent the ruling party from achieving a great public good, by creating procedural hurdles.

This is why parties don’t join hands to achieve public good, or share the credit for it.

So, even if all parties have declared the same point in their manifestos, they will never cooperate to finish it off as early as possible.

Clearly, the rules of this game must change to build some incentives for the parties to unite for the public good.

5. Vote-bank politics undermines our economy and destroys our unity

Ideally, every political party should aim to achieve an all-inclusive economic growth, in which all sections of society benefit.

In Varanasi, a burqa-clad woman shows her inked thumb after voting (photo from 2009).
To create a vote bank, parties use caste, religion, ethnicity, region, income level, gender, etc. to drive their pre-election agenda and discourse. Representational image. Pic: Nilanjan Chowdhury for Al Jazeera English (Via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.0)

But the economy takes a long time to grow. That does not suit most political parties, who are in a hurry to show quick results to impress their voters. So they resort to vote-bank politics, where they get an unfair advantage to a section of voters. This is far easier and quicker; and the vote-bank stays loyal to the party.

To create a vote bank, parties uses caste, religion, ethnicity, region, income level, gender, etc.

Vote-bank politics is highly toxic: As soon as a vote-bank is identified, all parties join a desperate race to win it over, by offering more and more unfair advantages in their manifestos. When an unfair advantage is proposed for a vote-bank, no party dares to oppose it, in fear of antagonizing that vote-bank. In fact, soon all parties try to outdo each other to win over that vote-bank. Thus, the vote-bank can walk away with any unfair advantage.

When a vote-bank wins, the other sections of the society lose out in this zero-sum game. This creates a rift between the vote-bank and others. This develops a hate culture.

As soon as a vote-bank is created, its own leaders pop up. They keep a tight leash on the vote-bank by “othering” the other sections of the society. This increases the hatred and suspicion between different sections of the society.

Thus, vote-bank politics not only breaks up our society, but also diverts our focus from an all-inclusive economic growth.

Unfortunately, there are no checks and balances to eliminate vote-bank culture.

6. Our legislature has not matured to become better-suited for democracy

While making a manifesto, the political candidate must assume the role of a public servant, who wants to serve the public. Unfortunately, all political candidates behave like rulers approaching their subjects, which affects the quality of the manifesto.

Read more: What is your MLA supposed to do for you?

Again, our colonial history is responsible for this distortion.

Before independence, India was divided in 565 princely states. Just before independence, all those rulers sensed that they would lose their kingdoms, so they joined political parties en masse. Many of the first-generation MPs and MLAs were royalty, and they took their power as their birthright. Even subsequently, many of their dynasts have continued in politics. Further, many political parties have set up their own dynasties.

Thus, most of the MPs and MLAs consider themselves above the law, and not accountable or even approachable to the public throughout their tenure. Only at election times do they put up some token show of humility. But even that is belied by the servitude of their supporters. If any member of public dares to call out the MP/MLA, his supporters would 

We need to change the structure to make the MPs and MLAs more responsive and approachable. Only then can they make a manifesto that truly reflects the needs and aspirations of the society.

7. Our legislature tried to usurp the place of social reformers and failed

Party manifestos also include social commitments, such as uniform civil code and reservation.

In our culture, social engineering was continuously done by social reformers, who belonged to some Matt, ashram or religious sect. They used to appeal to the moral ethics of the public, rather than using religious authority. Indeed, Indian history is replete with a lot of reformers from various non-brahmin castes.

However, after independence, our government took up the mantel of codification of social norms, and thus took over the space of social reformers. 

Note that a lot of social work is done by NGOs, which may be driven by extraneous agendas. When any social issues are undertaken by the government, the NGOs may try to intervene. Also, instead of appealing to the moral ethics, the government uses coercive force by setting up new statutes. This also results in a direct face off between the State on one hand and the religious order and NGOs on the other hand.

This is why government is not so successful in reforming our social customs.

Secondly, the government has no bandwidth to introduce social reforms. On the contrary, the rapidly changing economic and technological conditions are putting additional stress on our old social structure. 

As a result, work has stalled on critical issues like uniform civil code and reservation. A better system needs to be developed, with the active involvement of all stakeholders.

8. Our national character does not encourage democratic processes

Democracy is a social construct, in which the public must be assertive and demanding. The political parties respond to these demands by making their manifestos, and then striving hard to fulfill those promises.

However, our national culture does not let us leverage the manifestos effectively.

The Geert Hofstede model provides an excellent insight into national cultures.

If we look at the different successful democracies in the world, we can see that those societies have a culture that values individualism and low tolerance toward authority figures. Thus, each citizen can express his opinion fearlessly, without succumbing to social pressure or authority. Further, they also demand adherence to rules and procedures. They also have a strong sense of entitlement, and they demand quick results from the government.

Unfortunately, none of these characteristics exist in the Indian society:

  • High power distance: People in power are treated with respect and deference, and are never questioned. As a result, the executive and legislative enjoy unbridled power, with minimal accountability.
  • Collectivism: All decisions must be collective: individualism is not tolerated. So, the political parties must convince whole sections of society, rather than convincing individuals. That explains why our political campaigns rely on noisy mass demonstrations; and not clever argumentation and critical thinking. Worse, the definition of our “collectives” is along caste lines. Therefore, even the political parties have to cater to castes. If any citizen raises a question, the others silence his “individualistic” voice, however rational it may be. This has become much easier with social media, where trolling a lone dissenting voice is the norm.
  • High restraint: People in the West have more indulgence, which means they expect quick gratification of their desires. This sense of entitlement puts immense pressure on the government. But Indian culture places high value on restraint, perhaps shaped by centuries of oppressive rulers and poverty. This means that there is no pressure on the executive and politicians to perform.
  • Low uncertainty avoidance: Indian society tolerates ambiguity and uncertainty, and does not seek stability and predictability. Therefore, we do not value adherence to strict rules, procedures and standardization. This allows laxity in the government work.

We even have a common phrase “sab chalta hai attitude” to describe the flaw in our national character. 

This flaw is a major hindrance to having a functional democracy.

In the context of manifestos, we must shed this self-defeating attitude, and be more assertive and demanding.

9. Our socialist beginning has made people addicted to dole outs

All parties try to lure voters by including dole outs in their manifestos. 

Till 1947, no ruler in India (including the kings and the British government) guaranteed any social securities to its subjects. People earned their own keep, and did not rely on the State for any project. The economy was rural and local, and all communities were self-contained. 

However, in 1947, the government chose socialism, and planned economy. The government also promised food, water and housing to all its citizens, although it never had adequate funds for this Herculean endeavor. To make the matters worse, the government never placed any onus on the public, such as population control.

In the subsequent 75 years, all governments have failed to meet that desperate, blind promise.

Yet, the politicians do not admit that this promise is impossible to fulfill. Instead, they have turned the game to their advantage: They play favorites (only their supporters get the dole-outs.)

The opposition always likes to needle the ruling party about the missing jobs and the masses left out without security. But if they come to power, the roles are reversed, and the cat-and-mouse game continues.  

The worst example of our dole out culture is how the MP/MLA discretionary funds are used. The MPs and MLAs treat this as their private purse, and hand it out like alms to the voters. They want to prominently display their photos and names on the projects created from the discretionary funds.

The discretionary fund is public money, and therefore it is unethical to immortalize the name of an MP/MLA using such projects. In fact, no political party should be allowed to claim any credit for creating a public asset by spending public money.

A bigger concern is that both the fiscal budget and the discretionary budget are allocated according to the whims of the MPs and MLAs, not based on any rules. Worse, the MP/MLA can divert even fully allocated money without giving any explanation, leaving the project incomplete or abandoned. The system does not have any deterrents for the MP/MLA for such nasty behavior.

As a result, the voter is reduced to a beggar, because he has no power over his MP/MLA. There are no rules to define the allocation of money for his project. He cannot know if/when his project will be undertaken, or whether it will have any money allocated for it. Thus, he is helplessly dependent on his MP/MLA for favors.

Clearly, any rosy manifestos have little meaning for such voters, who are made to beg for small favors, rather than getting a fair share of the public money as their entitlement.

10. All political parties are always under pressure to take populist but ruinous decisions

Every party has to outdo the others to impress the voters. Their manifestos reflect this competition.

But often parties don’t have a unique proposition, and in desperation they resort to divisive politics or economically ruinous offers.

Last year, the Election Commission sought to put a stop to such disastrous decisions by asking the parties to declare the economic impact of all promises, and also the financial sources for the schemes. 

This model needs to be developed expeditiously, so that any political promise can be made only if it meets rigorous criteria.

11. Our political debating and decision-making process is dysfunctional

Regardless of whether any point is included in the manifesto or not, all decisions are supposed to be taken in the House only after a thorough discussion. And at this point, our system lets us down heavily: As the previous points show, all parties come to the House with ulterior motives. Through a tacit understanding, all parties protect their vote-banks, but without letting that open secret out in a debate.

If the House had a formal argumentation, each point would have to be debated, which makes it impossible to hide any ulterior motives. But in our system, long rambling speeches are used instead of point-by-point argumentation. This allows the politicians to wear their emotions on their sleeve, and make a drama in the House. But it does not settle the nuanced problems. It also allows politicians to deflect any pointed questions with rhetoric and counter-accusations. 

In fact, all parties resort to heckling and interruptions to scuttle any meaningful debate. All chances to fine-tune the bill are frittered away. Finally, the bill is pushed through a majority partisan vote. Some token changes may appear, but which may be through backdoor wheeling-dealing between parties, rather than through an open debate.

If the bill is about an emotive issue, the opposition would create some token drama on the street and in TV debates. But the damage is already done.

Clearly, our political debating system needs a major overhaul.

Compared to our vague and noise-filled “debates”, the PMQ in the British Parliament seems to be much more effective because of its format: The opposition leader raises pointed questions, and the PM must give precise and short answers with supporting data. There are no interruptions or cross-talk. Thus, no question can be avoided or parried.

To conclude…  

For any political party, making a well-balanced manifesto is not an easy task. There are many factors that tempt or force any party to go astray.

Parties which command a small vote share are more desperate to win, and therefore they are most likely to make radically populist but disastrous promises. In competitive politics, other parties are forced to make similar promises. Thus, bad ideas spread faster.

Manifestos reflect a party’s vote-bank politics. This not only breaks our society, but also stops our economic growth.

Even after winning, a party may stray from its manifesto and take unwise steps. Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to stop this from happening. 

We must introduce many systemic corrections to ensure that all parties make prudent promises, and stay on course during their tenure.

We need a better argumentation system in the House to get rid of the hidden Trojan horses in the bills, and to optimize them for the overall public good.

Furthermore, we must also reform the executive to make it directly accountable to the public.

Finally, we must have a system of performance metrics in the public domain to track the performance of the government, which includes both executive and legislature.

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