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The similarity between the manifestos of the Congress and the BJP – the latter came out today – has caused much comment. If anything, this reflects the ideological convergence between the two largest parties on many economic issues. But a detailed reading provides considerable texture to the differences and to the similarities, underlining the different focuses of the two parties.
What, first, are the big expensive similarities?
· Housing for all (free in neither, low-cost in both)
· Healthcare for all (free in neither, low-cost in both. Free medicines from the Congress)
If anything, this reinforces the idea that both parties are committed to a welfarist idea of India. The anti-dole rhetoric of the BJP is not reflected in its most important actionable promises. In neither manifesto is the cost of these initiatives estimated, or their impact on the fiscal deficit mentioned. Additional evidence of this welfarist convergence is the manner in which the BJP promises to better implement the Congress’ Right to Food – and the Congress promises to expand the BJP’s Antyodaya programme, which targets food to the very poorest. Both parties also promise to refocus welfarism on outcomes and the quality of services provided.
There are several concepts in the Congress that are not in the BJP’s. Some of these may surprise reformists – though, of course, the party’s ability to implement them will be questioned given its recent history in power.
· Replacing subsidies with user charges: The word “subsidies” is not found in the BJP’s manifesto, although a generic commitment to fiscal discipline is. The Congress, on the other hand, promises to reduce subsidies: “Given the limited resources, and the many claims on the resources, we must choose the subsidies that are absolutely necessary and give them only to the absolutely deserving. We will also consider introducing sensible user charges...”
· Financial sector reforms: Although a hallmark of the last NDA government, the BJP has largely ignored financial openness and innovation; the Congress, however, promises an actionable timetable on financial-sector reform, already the subject of an excellent report from Ajay Shah and others.
· Direct benefit transfers: Another way to reduce the subsidy bill, and one much beloved of economists. The Congress, in spite of recent problems with Aadhaar, repeats that it will follow through with this if returned to office. The BJP mentions cash transfers not at all.
· Education/skill vouchers, for SC/ST: A very popular idea with economic liberals is the provision of choice to those who want to invest in their human capital. The Congress suggests it will provide vouchers, redeemable against any course, for young people from Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes who want to develop their skills.
· Unique ID: Aadhaar is repeatedly mentioned in the Congress manifesto. Not only is that not mentioned in the BJP’s, but neither is the NDA’s own project, the National Population Register. There is, however, an odd mention of “ID cards for labourers in the unorganised sector” in the BJP’s manifesto. If this is different from Aadhaar, then it will involve considerable duplication; making it compulsory might well raise red tape and reduce unemployment. It’s probably a product of the widespread phobia about Bangladeshi immigration.
· Providing proteins, not just carbs: A constant refrain of those who disapprove of the current approach to food security has been the over-emphasis on foodgrain at the cost of other essentials. The Congress says that it will also include, under the Antyodaya scheme, protein-rich pulses and cooking oil.
· Animal husbandry: Oddly, unlike in the Congress’, I couldn’t find a mention of animal husbandry, a fast-growing rural business, in the BJP’s manifesto at all. A vegetarian Gujarat model?
Here are some concepts in the BJP’s manifesto, but not in Congress:
· “Port-led development”: Spinning off Narendra Modi’s efforts in Gujarat, ports are given special emphasis by the BJP, and largely ignored by the Congress. The BJP’s manifesto emphasises not just building and improving ports, but also coastal highways, special railway lines linking the hinterland to active ports, and “agri-rail”, presumably with refrigerated cars.
· River interlinking (“based on feasibility”): Like ports, river inter-linking was one of the big ideas of the Vajpayee era. Since then it’s run into much trouble. But the BJP’s manifesto, in keeping with a larger emphasis on infrastructure development, resurrects the idea.
· Special credit facilities to real estate sector: A promise in the BJP’s manifesto, as part of its effort to ensure a home for all. Can wind up being a handout to bankrupt developers and greedy politicians, without real structural reform of the sector.
· New specialised banks: Not fazed by the mockery of the “women’s bank” that Finance Minister P Chidambaram announced last year, the BJP has suggested two such tokenist institutions: a “worker’s bank” and a “mobile women’s bank”.
· Online learning: Unlike the Congress, the BJP has figured out that “massive open online courses”, or MOOCs, are perhaps the quickest and best way to scale up education. This is in keeping with its stated focus on younger, more aspirational people.
· Tourism: Not mentioned in the Congress’ manifesto, but a major thrust focus in the BJP’s. This is in keeping with Mr Modi’s speeches. In the book Moditva, it is even suggested that tourism reduces terrorism.
· Factories as families: One unusual suggestion in the BJP’s manifesto: “Encourage industry owners and labour to embrace concept of Industry Family, in which industry owners and labour bond as a family.” This is either very Gandhian or very Japanese.
· Fast-track courts for hoarders: The UPA has repeatedly tried to blame hoarders and black-marketeers for volatile food prices. It is the BJP, however, that promises fast-track courts for hoarders as a way of controlling food inflation. Mr Modi has often complained that the Centre shut down special funding for states’ fast-track courts.
· Ayurgenomics. Many were puzzled by this commitment from the BJP: “We will start integrated courses for Indian System of Medicine (ISM) and modern science and Ayurgenomics.” (Ayurgenomics is apparently the Ayurveda of genetics.)
What phrases are missing in both the manifestos?
· “Privatisation” or “disinvestment”. Once the touchstone of reformist foreign policy; now neither party appears to want to touch the public sector. The BJP has long trumpeted the NDA’s record on disinvestment; it seems to have very noticeably retreated from any such agenda.
· “The United States of America”. Neither manifesto so much as mentions the US. The BJP’s talks vaguely about “mending equations” and avoiding “being led by big power interests”. The Congress’ mentions Pakistan, China, Brazil, South Africa, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, SAARC, and even the Non-Aligned Movement. But the US is clearly political poison right now.