If the Congress can be populist, the Bharatiya Janata Party can promise populism squared. That is the message in the BJP’s copy-cat election manifesto. The Congress offered grain at Rs 3, the BJP has promised it at Rs 2. The Congress promised 25 kg per month, the BJP has promised 35 kg. The UPA government has decreed farm loans at 7 per cent, the BJP says it will make it 4 per cent. The UPA waived farm loans for small farmers, the BJP now promises that it will waive all loans to all farmers. The party has decided that if giveaways are the name of the game, then the BJP will play it with a vengeance. The party has occasionally claimed that it was the original reformer, and that the Congress simply stole a leaf from its book in 1991. Whether true or not (and remember that the party was critical of the 1991 reforms), the BJP has now slammed that book shut, clear in its new conviction that what gets votes are hand-outs.
The difference when compared with the Congress is that while the latter has focused on giveaways for the have-nots (whether or not it is they who get the benefit), the BJP has also focused on large segments of the middle-class, by promising to double the lowest income level for taxation to Rs 3 lakh, treating interest income as tax-free, and offering special deals for the armed forces, including a new pay commission. That there is no limit to this ridiculous game is evident because the Congress in Orissa (where there are assembly elections as well) has now promised state voters rice at a rupee (the promise, incidentally, which helped the undivided DMK sweep the Tamil Nadu assembly elections in 1967). In repeating that promise, the Orissa Congress seems to think there has been no inflation in the last 42 years.
That the country’s two largest parties should choose to go down this road to economic bankruptcy should worry all right-thinking people. No calculations have been made about what such policies will do to fiscal health, banking culture, the food economy and much else, though it should be obvious that the promises are completely unsustainable and therefore not to be taken seriously. If there is widespread diversion of subsidised grain away from the intended beneficiaries (something that is beyond dispute), surely some correctives should be applied before pushing more grain down a leaky pipe; but promising that would be to be rational, and that does not get votes. Even worse, it might be considered to be reform, and reform is an unmentionable word.
When the BJP is not being populist, it is busy drumming up all the old issues: a Ram temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370, a tough anti-terror law, et al. This may be a formalistic obeisance to the party faithful (imagine a BJP manifesto that does not mention them!), but the party knows that if it forms a government after the elections, it will be as part of a coalition, and no coalition partner buys into these issues. It is the populist danger that is clear and present.