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Election Manifestos: KEY AREA FOR REFORMS, By Dr.S.Saraswathi, 23 March, 19 Print E-mail

Open Forum

New Delhi, 23 March 2019

Election Manifestos


By Dr.S.Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Election Commission has fixed the outer time limit for release of political party manifestos for 2019 General Elections as 48 hours before polling. The bar on declaration of manifestos in the last two days before election is now brought under the Model Code of Conduct Part VIII relating to Guidelines on Manifestos.

The rule is significant as elections are drawing closer and campaigns are growing more and more vigorous, but most of the parties have not yet released their manifestos outlining their policies and programmes. Hundreds of meetings are taking place and countless promises are extended orally, but written promises are coming very slow. The BJP released its 2014 manifesto on the day of polling in first phase!

Under this rule, in the multi-phase polls of 2019, the 48-hour ban -- the silence period -- will apply before each polling date.  During this period, direct or indirect way of soliciting support for parties or candidates including release of manifestos in concerned constituencies is prohibited.

Though very important to get votes, manifestos come after alliance formation, and delayed as much as possible. They are gaining importance with increasing people’s awareness, but losing meaning because of alliances of parties with contrary views. 

Asserting that it had fulfilled 520 out of the 549 assurances given before 2014 election, the BJP is working on a Report Card of its performance. 

This time, election manifesto labelled “Sankalp Patra” is given special importance by the BJP as the focus of electioneering.  The process of preparing the document is democratised to make it a people’s exercise. The Party president went round the country seeking people’s views and involving them in deciding the framework of what the party claims to be the “New India” they want. In 2014, the BJP came up with the idea of launching a website to seek suggestions from people. Later, social media came to play a significant role in assembly elections.

The Congress has also launched a website to gather suggestions for drawing up its election manifesto. It is holding wide consultations with the public known as Jan Awaaz (people’s voice).

The word “manifesto”, derived from the Latin “manifestum”, means clear or conspicuous.  World famous manifestos include the United States Declaration of Independence (1776), Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens (1789) after the French Revolution, The Communist Manifesto (1848) issued by Karl Marx and Friedrick Engels, and the Anarchist Manifesto (1850).

In British election campaigns, launch of party manifestos is considered a decisive moment conveying to the electorate what they can expect from different parties. Manifestos are not only promises to capture votes, but they also set the agenda for the government if the party forms the government. In this way, they are commitments of the parties far different from platform promises.

One of the principles agreed in 1911 in Britain states that: “Any tabled bill set out in the governing body’s manifesto may be subjected to possible short delay, but pass, but anything else would be subject to full debate”. The rule was clarified by Lord Salisbury in 1945 to prevent House of Lords blocking any government legislation promised in the election manifesto.

Intra-party differences are perceptible in general election manifestos at the British, Scottish, and Welsh levels showing sub-national differences. National identity is prominent in Scottish and Welsh manifestos of the same party. State-wide parties -- Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats -- now prefer to produce detailed manifestos separately for each of the three countries that make up the Great Britain.

British parliamentarians hold that manifestos have a quasi-constitutional authority in the unwritten British Constitution and parties are expected to stick to the policies enshrined in them.   This document is generally very long. The manifestos of Labour, Conservative, and Liberal Democracy contained over 26,000 words in 2015. 

Writing party manifesto is taken up by parties as a serious work in Britain. In the Labour party, for example, the Parliamentary Labour Party, trade unions, constituency labour parties, and affiliated societies take part in preparing the document and it must be formally endorsed by all stakeholders at a special meeting of the National Executive Committee. Conservatives, on the contrary, are flexible in giving control of their manifesto to leaders at the central party organisation almost entirely.

However, party manifestos cannot be taken as agreed bonds. In course of time, they have lost credibility and in many respects have become a mere piece of paper as a CJI remarked. Judiciary has no authority to ensure parties’ compliance with the manifestos. Governance is also not a simple matter to carry out any wishful ideas that may come to political leaders.

The Model Code of Conduct in India prohibits promises that would exert undue influence on voters. But, the Code is not enforceable in a court of law.

Still, the Election Commission can check fanciful promises that may misguide the voters. In August 2016, it censured the AIADMK for not being able to give a rationale and show the means to raise the finances required to carry out poll promises in the party manifesto like waiver of all farm loans due to cooperative banks, free distribution of washing machines, steam boiler, and idli cookers, gift coupons for all ration card holders, etc. The EC also asked the DMK to be more circumspect and adhere to the Model Code of Conduct.

A PIL seeking judicial action for ensuring compliance with manifestos was rejected. Writ of Mandamus is “wholly misconceived” to enforce manifestos, according to a verdict of Punjab and Haryana High Court.

Pre-poll alliances have become common, but not common manifestos of constituent members.   Recently, JD(S) leader suggested a common manifesto for the mahagathbandhan against the BJP, but it did not find takers. Some regional parties stick to their poll promises regardless of their post-poll alliance.

In 1998, the Left Parties comprising the CPM, CPI, Revolutionary Socialist Party, and All India Forward Bloc issued a joint left manifesto expressing their commitment to a strong secular-democratic system, a just social order for all oppressed sections, growth with equity, and corruption-free and accountable government. The United Front issued a “Common Programme and Joint Policy Declaration”.

In 2015, for the Bihar Assembly election, the mahagathbandhan of RJD, JD (U), and Congress issued a common manifesto which was almost copy of the 7-point agenda of the JD(U) for welfare and development of the State.

In our neighbourhood, the Awami League of Bangladesh, a 14-party alliance, brought a common manifesto in 2008 and in 2018.

Manifestos, like party flags and election symbols, have symbolic value. AAP and BJP exchanged symbolic gestures of burning each other’s manifesto -- the former for non-implementation of statehood for Delhi, and the latter for “tower of failures” of AAP government.

However, voters do not take manifestos seriously since performance and promises of parties are not linked fully. Parties which supported GST and Women’s Reservation in their manifestos,     became strong critics of GST and blocked women’s reservation bill in Parliament.

Ensuring compliance with manifesto promises is a key reform needed in the electoral system to eradicate the menace of empty promises and promote accountability of parties.--- INFA

(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)


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