Sunday, March 29, 2009

Common Salt Manifesto and a Common Minimum Program.

The largest democracy over the next month and a half will decide on the government which will have the reins to lead India in an uncertain world. A billion votes will count to decide either on the performance of the last government or the promised that the government failed to deliver or buy what the opposition parties serve to meet the aspirations of the general public.

Either ways one of the lynch pins which gives the voter a cue is the party manifesto. Gone are those days when manifestos started and ended with “Roti Capada Aur Makan” . Today’s vanilla agrarian manifestos have outlasted their utility as the environment around the 60 year old democratic country has changed drastically.

The issues, aspirations and basic needs of the citizen are as wide and varied as the nation itself. Going by the demands of a separate Telengana state, India may soon be a United Country of more than 30 states as the sly politician will realize that he may have a better chance to usurp power from a small electoral mass.

The larger issues that India faces as the largest democracy and the most plural state in the world are the sheer length and breadth of the canvass of the electorate. Add to the mire the number of parties wooing the masses.

Consider the US and India, two of the most vibrant democracies in the world. Here is my attempt to simplify and articulate the nuances of differences which are as stark in contrast as chalk and cheese.

By and large the US voter has just two parties and two candidates to choose from. Unless if you consider the indefatigable Ross Perot who garnered 25 + % votes when he contested. The US also has an effective Presidential democratic system where year long debates and primaries lead to the myriad issues; those get percolated to Presidential candidate who in return owns up the issues with his and his parties ideologies and locus standing. The US presidential campaign begins very early giving ample time for the voter to understand the candidates better.

India on the contrast has over two national parties along with several regional parties and off course 540 members of the parliament elected from thousands of aspirants who in turn are supported by a few lakh ardent supporters whose loyalties are ever always questionable.

In addition to electing members to the Lok Sabha, there are state wise assembly polls which elect over 6000 members of the legislative assembly from an aspirant pool of a few lakh citizens.

Having attempted an appreciation to the magnitude we are aware that it is quite a challenge to wrap a party manifesto inclusive of all the voters’ aspirations. The voters hail from urban, rural India and their issues dived between welfare, food, cost of living, call for basic amenities, safe society, prevention of terror attacks , swift and able support in the wake of natural disasters, basic health care and education and up liftment of the backward and minority communities. What I call a “Common Salt Manifesto”

Seldom in the past have we had governments - coalition or single party adhere to the common minimum programs after being voted to power. Yet the Election Commission could exercise its powers to bring about a feasible and viable common minimum program applicable to all the contesting parties as a default qualification to contest in an election.

The common minimum program can broadly encompass basic necessities like affordable homes, food, health care, education and agrarian soaps to mitigate unpredictable weather and droughts. A lack of a statutory qualification filter of contesting parties to adhere to a common minimum program by the election commission will lead to a few parties to garner mandate from the electorate based on vote bank politics using caste, communal and divisive ideologies. A common minimum program could also be crafted taking into account the pressing needs meeting challenges posed due to external factors.

How else can one explain the lack of focus of none of the parties to address in their manifestos the worst global recession since 1938 to have hit India as much as it has affected global economies?

Populist, short sighted exchequer draining electoral soaps like free color televisions, free powers, loan waivers, subsidized rice or wheat and reservations for backward classes dominate the manifestos. Yet no mention in intent and detail outlined on the promise of protecting the nation against terror attacks and provide bullet proof jackets to the men who protect civilians every day? We have as an electorate almost given up on an expectation of a cover of social security? Haven’t we?

As to foreign policy, it is never an agenda in the radar of a political party when contesting elections? How else can we explain the non rebuttal of Indian Foreign Affairs and Diplomatic offices condemning continued funding to a terror state like Pakistan? What if there isn’t a blank cheque granted to Pakistan government by US? 1.5 Billion USD is also quite a sum in incentive to a government harboring Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar and feeding SWAT and FATA regions? In short Foreign policy is not an electoral agenda when it is for most developed nations? Wasn’t that a primary reason why Republicans for voted out of office last December?

Indeed, it is a challenge to have an all encompassing manifesto and a wholly inclusive common minimum program pleasing a billion variety of asks from its citizens. But that does not absolve the need for parties to sit down and take pains to articulate a wide variety of issues and proactive measures that each party would take to render good governance to the Indian public. Or an opportunity that Election Commission can utilize to create a criteria factor purporting the “Common Salt Manifest” to all parties in the fray.

Lest we don’t pay heed to the many pertinent sore eye issues those challenge us today and will tomorrow and serve it up to the politicians as fodder to play the game of nation building politics in accord to the rules laid by the constitution of India; it may be a futile exercise of a billion voters’s ushering a fresh round of musical chairs every five years at the highest institution of India – Parliament.

And before long it may be too late in the day to change the current currency minting, power garnering gluttony game to what was meant to be a serious indulgence of “We the People, By the People, For the People”