By Ndeye Diobaye

The release of the Indian National Congress’s manifesto last Wednesday sparked quite a debate, and certainly not the one the governing party had expected. The fact that the party issued its manifesto barely weeks before the first polls is in itself suggestive of the party’s own recognition of its manifesto’s potential in regaining the electorate’s trust. However, it appears that the (not so) long awaited document failed to work as a magic wand reversing popular opinion in favor of the INC. Instead, it served as an open gate for the opposition parties and media to heap more criticism at the ruling government and its many failures. The document is pretty much a cauldron of old unfulfilled promises of the past and some newer pledges that seem just as unlikely to be followed through. By adapting old commitments to current challenges, the Congress is not only jeopardizing its chances of winning a third time but also raising questions over its seriousness to succeed in the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections.

What is the point in releasing a document full of ambitious promises less than fifteen days before the first day of the polls? One could argue that a better timing for the document’s release would have avoided at least some of the negative reactions it sparked. However, the lack of effort reflected in this document was bound to be noticed regardless of its date of release. Perhaps it is now time to question the utility of manifestos in elections as they seem to be taken so lightly by political parties.

The other question the Congress’ manifesto raises is whether a simple crowd-sourced manifesto is relevant. It is crucial in the election run-up for parties to answer people’s concerns with commitment. Yet it is also the parties’ duty to identify challenges on their own and assert those challenges with clear policy proposals, and not build castles in the air. Manifestos are meant to present the outline of a political party’s program, and proving that this party can actually present a renewed agenda. In our digital era where political parties exploit social networks to share their vision with the electorate, manifestos do come in handy to keep a track of those agendas.  However, they do not offer any details and specific, and are perhaps more like a promo than a movie- a mere summary that doesn’t let the public know too much about the plot.

Election manifestos shouldn’t be reduced to such promotional pamphlets, and to offer more insight into possible reforms would be no spoilers for the electorate. It should explain how a party plans to reach their goals. A good way to make political parties present more in-depth perspectives would be to set up of debates between candidates. There has been a clear lack of confrontation between candidates in the 2014 Lok Sabha Election. It is likely that supporters of Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi have had more direct interaction with them on social networks than the two candidates have had with each other during the entire electoral campaign. The only confrontation that has existed between the candidates is when representatives criticize each other on national media. At this time in the electoral campaign, a debate between the prime ministerial candidates will have a greater impact on the polls than such flimsy manifestos. It would have allowed the electorate to scrutinize the agenda of different political parties with more clarity, and more importantly, establish a comparative understanding of the confidence, stature, and leadership skills of the candidates.

Illustration by Vikram Nandwani