Elections & ‘Manifesto Politics’: What Congress & BJP Can Learn

Here’s why party manifestos are slowly and steadily gaining ground, both for the voters and the parties.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

Star campaigners have hit the campaign trail, and the election fever is finally catching up in Haryana and Maharashtra which is going to polls on 21 October.

While Devendra Fadnavis, is seeking re-election (only the second chief minister in the history of Maharashtra in this position), the Congress-NCP alliance is hoping to make a comeback riding on agriculture distress, unemployment and economic slowdown.

Although initial polls suggest an easy win for the BJP, these predictions should be taken with a pinch of salt. Pre-election, major parties have declared their manifestos which have also both piqued curiosity and controversy.

Elections & ‘Manifesto Politics’: What Congress & BJP Can Learn
(Photo: Arnica Kala / The Quint)
Elections & ‘Manifesto Politics’: What Congress & BJP Can Learn
(Photo: Arnica Kala / The Quint)

Definition of ‘Manifesto’

A manifesto is a publication issued by a political party before a general election. It contains the set of policies that the party stands for and would wish to implement if elected to govern.

It is in effect the vision document of a party, and includes the blueprint of action for the next five years. It usually contains some measurable as well as subjective mission statements. Traditionally, manifestos in India have not been taken seriously by parties and given the importance it deserves by voters. For example, BSP has never released a manifesto, yet its supremo, Mayawati, has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh four times.

Bulky Document, Late Release

Manifestos are bulky documents and the fact that they are released usually very late (in terms of the election schedule), doesn’t leave enough time for reading by voters and meaningful debate and discussion. We don’t have debates among top leaders of parties on manifesto points. The Sankalp / Vachan patras for the two states were released just a week before polling day in both Maharashtra and Haryana. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, BJP, the main contender, released its manifesto on the first day of polling — Phase 1 of the elections.

Do Party Manifestos Impact Voting Behavior?

CSDS-Lokniti had asked this question in their surveys during Kerala and Tamil Nadu elections in 2016. 40-50 percent respondents claimed to have read the manifestos. 13 percent said it impacted their voting decisions a lot. However, the two cannot be used as a proxy for the rest of the country because

  1. literacy levels vary: Haryana & Maharashtra have high rates
  2. behavioral reasons: South India has exhibited voting patterns which are different from the rest of the country. Even in developed countries like UK, manifestos impacted the voting behavior of 27 percent of the population, as per a 2010 survey.

Manifestos Have Gained Prominence Only Recently

Manifestos have increasingly become a topic of discussion in urban areas since the last few elections. Social media has helped this cause. Major parties are now spending more time and resources drafting their vision document. They start this process early, usually 3-6 months before polling, and crowdsource ideas / comments from the public. The manifesto committees of many parties take professional help in drafting. Today, the manifesto has become one of the key campaign components.

Dissemination of Key Messages Remain a Challenge

Since manifestos are usually released very late in the election timeline, their (speedy and wide) distribution becomes a challenge for parties. Usually parties make leaflets, (2-4 pages) summarising the key points, and distribute it among workers and voters. I have also seen parties printing manifestos in hoards, lying in office headquarters, waiting to be lifted by the candidates. Here, technology plays a key role. The digital cards / banners of key manifesto promises are circulated in WhatsApp groups, thus, filling up for last mile connectivity. Here, the BJP scores over the Congress.

Also, its network of cadres and RSS workers reach voters directly and explain the key points.

It is for this very reason that Congress was unable to cash in on its pet NYAY scheme in the general elections.


What Each Party Manifesto Focuses On

Congress, the principal opposition party, is relying on freebies– farm loan waivera, scholarships, unemployment allowance etc in both the states. This has worked for them in three state elections last year. On the other hand, BJP’s manifesto is comparatively development-oriented, devoid of freebies.

It’s not that BJP doesn’t include freebies in its manifesto.

In UP and Maharashtra, BJP had promised farm loan waivers while it was in opposition. Usually, it is observed that the party in opposition offers freebies, while the party in power desists from doing so. BJP has also started the process of integrating the central and state manifestos. A few points in Maharashtra and Haryana manifestos, like housing for all, doubling income of farmers – are part of BJP’s central manifesto.

What’s Missing from Manifestos

The focus in the manifestos is on promises, however, most of the time, what’s missing is how it will be achieved and what it will cost to the exchequer. For example, in Maharashtra, BJP had promised 5 lakh crores of investments, but it has done less than half in the current tenure. Congress promised Rs 72,000 for 5 crore poor households (NYAY) in general elections, but was silent on how will it be funded. It is promising farm loan waivers, but is silent on the amount, number of beneficiaries etc. The inclusion of these elements will provide clarity to the voters.

Should EC Have Jurisdiction over Manifesto?

As soon as the Model Code of Conduct kicks in, all communication of parties – banners, posters, films, songs, print ads etc. – will have to be approved by the Election Commission. In that case, it’s rather surprising that such a key document is presented to the public without their approval. According to EC guidelines, manifestos should reflect the rationale for promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. But this is clearly not being adhered to. In its only instance, EC issued notices to AIADMK and DMK in 2016 state elections for not fulfilling the guidelines, but no concrete action was taken.

Bhutan requires parties to submit their manifestos for approval, only post which they can make it public.

This takes care of the late-filing issue by the parties. India can adopt or learn from this.

To sum up, manifestos have an important role in elections. In India, the entire process is still evolving, and hopefully by next general elections, both voters and parties will start taking manifestos more seriously.

(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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