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Notes on the BJP’s manifesto

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By Shiv Visvanathan

Manifestoes are acts of communication. They seek to inspire with rhetoric. When the BharatiyaJanata Party’s manifesto was released, I was not sure if the party was trying to communicate with the people. There is a humourless ferocity in the document that makes one wonder about the mindset of the communicators. It’s like an exam where the examinee awards himself full marks, regardless of the questions the public is asking. There is an attempt to force the discourse towards what the party is obsessed with rather than answer questions about its performance.


To switch metaphors, it reads as though three directors of a board are sending letters to stockholders about profitability. The marginalisation of the stakeholders is obvious. On pages 34 and 35, for instance, minorities, the elderly, the disabled, shopkeepers, and artisans each get a line not as a statement of concern but as a recognition of their marginality.

The cover shows Prime Minister NarendraModi, and the back page features Syama Prasad Mookerjee, DeenDayalUpadhyaya and AtalBihari Vajpayee assuring ideological continuity. If the three letters from Mr.Modi, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, and party president Amit Shah reveal some attempt to communicate, the rest of the document achieves a change in style, which is intriguing. It reveals a checklist, a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude. There is no attempt to even correct typos in the document.

One cannot quite figure out if it is indifference to quality or the arrogance of a group convinced that it is returning to power, performing an unnecessary but unavoidable exercise.

Mr.Modi called the elections a festival of democracy. One wishes the manifesto was an invitation to it. It is clear that Mr.Modi has turned development into a dismal science and he invites us to this dismal India. The document celebrates elections but has little sense of democracy. The confidence of ushering in achhe din is missing in it.

Development is second to security. Terms like “surgical strike” and “zero tolerance towards terrorism” are summoned to dance to the BJP’s idea of national security. There is a quiet sense of paranoia as security gets defined as the standard obsession of the right. Yet, the way the roads in Kashmir were shut down creating a humanitarian problem reveals scant sensitivity to the problem.

On agriculture, the responses are rote. There is barely any grasp of the crisis of agriculture, of the rampant drought, of the epidemic of suicides. The assumption is that a bit of tinkering with prices and insurance can restore the livelihoods of a people. What is stark is the separation of security from livelihood. Agriculture is broken down to a few programmes and missions. During World War II, soldiers would be made to dig ditches and fill them up to keep themselves occupied. They coined an irreverent term for it: SNAFU (‘situation normal, all fouled up’). The SNAFU sense of agriculture in the BJP document stands out. There are mentions of technological fixes, but there is no exertion to tie technology, the political economy and culture. For a party which invokes culture, agriculture is reduced to a set of price and technological fixes.

The claims about the Swachh Bharat Mission leaves one wondering whether the BJP has heard of Bezwada Wilson. As Mr. Wilson, who is national convenor of the SafaiKarmachariAndolan, said, behind all Swachh programmes there are scavengers and septic tanks. To ignore the scavengers and tanks is to deny justice and dignity to people. By emphasising technology, the BJP seems blind to the humanity of scavengers.

There is a fixation with technology and management everywhere, but as a result, one loses the imagination of the city and the informal economy. There is no sense of civics or civic life as transport grids cover the city. The city is conceived of as a grid of technologies. The question of plurality, culture, difference and migration is lost in this monolinguism of technocracy.

There is an absent-mindedness to the document when it talks of unity and Ram Janmabhoomi in the same breath. The confusion of majoritarianism with national unity is a lethal flaw. But the BJP refuses an attempt to correct the error.

There is no urgency about climate change, no sense of the Anthropocene. Ecology gets reduced to a fixation on the Ganga.

One returns repeatedly to the language of the report. First, it has a sense of a submission to the Guinness World Records rather than a report to a people. The subconscious humour turns sour as the document, ignoring the problems brought about by the National Register of Citizens, the Rohingya crisis, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, claims the Northeast is now closer to the mainstream than ever before.

The document barely mentions demonetisation, which caused havoc across the country.

It emphasises Artificial Intelligence and “robotic research”. Do such technologies add to jobs? We don’t know. There is little sense of biological and ecological technologies. Anthropocene and urban planning are forgotten as India joins the technological bandwagon without any sense of ecology, culture or context.

India wants to be a world-class nation without even asking what the term means and what its consequences are. There is hardly any thought on the quality of science or education. What one confronts is a huge promise of access to seats without any understanding of the university as an organic institution. The question of expansion is treated linearly in terms of technology and admissions but the role of the teacher as an autonomous academic is ignored. We face the prospect of universities serving government and industry but lacking any function beyond this service model. Even the question of women’s empowerment lacks a vision of rights-based strategies.

Reading the document one sees an emphasis on policy without culture, of prescriptions without a real sense of the polity. It is an attempt to create a managerial model of governance while quietly downplaying the demands of democracy. Here again, language is the key. There are haunting silences — about violence, freedom, alternatives — as the BJP pretends it is a juggernaut moving linearly towards its goals. What one misses is a nod to debate and doubt. Everything gets subjugated by indicators and indices, which show little awareness of the actual lives of the people. The dreariness of the future becomes obvious in the document when a democracy, like development, is reduced to dismal science.