Author : Nilanjan Ghosh

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Apr 05, 2021
One thing is pretty sure from the manifestos. Political parties are more interested in showing the carrots that are readily saleable to their electorate.
A tale of four manifestos in the battle over Bengal: The development dimension

With the Bengal Assembly elections underway, we need to take a closer look at the manifestos of four political parties — All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Left Front (LF), and Indian National Congress (INC) — that entail the vision that these four intend to place in front of their electorate.

On this count, while the TMC, BJP, and INC have professionally designed manifestos, the LF has a plain-looking visually unappealing one, full of expressions and innuendos that characterise the traditional Indian left ideology. More importantly, the manifesto only presents the problems as perceived by the LF, especially with respect to the policies of the TMC within the state and the BJP at the centre. The solutions the LF presents are conjectures and directionless without being concrete, as evidenced in page 12 of the manifesto: “… For development of local resource and regional characteristics, suitable planning and infrastructural development will be there with participation of the people. … Initiatives will be stepped up for progress in backward areas like North Bengal, Jangalmahal, Sundarbans (sic.).” Notwithstanding the clamorous language and grammar, the LF hardly places anything concrete in terms of the policies or pathways for these developments. Rather, the manifesto is more vociferous with what they dismiss: “The struggle against anti-people policies and corruption of the Centre will continue. … shall fight against the decimation of the constitutional rights of the states.” (pg 11). This presents what the LF has traditionally been: A destructive and an obstructive force rather than a constructive force for development. The Centre-State relation that is tantamount to “conflictual federalism” over the last 44 years has only been detrimental for the state. The very continuity of such combative mindset will only go against the interests of the people. All these reflect on the LF’s ardent adherence to its ideological dogmatism that had witnessed its decline and had made it irrelevant in the state and national politics.

During the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, INC produced the best election manifesto from the development perspective, though ) can be criticised on grounds of practicability. Yet, there is no doubt that it was innovative and holistic and had elements of health, talked of green budgeting that is unprecedented in Indian development thinking, and emphasised on education and climate change. For all these elements, INC proposed some new and concrete steps, though the goodness of its proposals could not translate into an electoral victory! Unfortunately, though its West Bengal Assembly election manifesto has some concrete points in terms of women safety, social security for the backward classes, the manifesto could not show clear pathway on industrial growth of the State despite acknowledging the need for MSME development. Its proposals on health and education are half-hearted. Yet, it needs to be acknowledged that this manifesto is probably the only one that has not indulged in hurling insinuations to its rivals or highlighting the failures of existing dispensations.

For the TMC, the manifesto is a clear manifestation of the work of a professional in terms of design and content, much in contrast to its 2019 Lok Sabha manifesto that was a disaster in terms of its content as also its vision for development. Rather, in the 2021 Assembly elections, TMC has something more concrete in their manifesto in terms of proposals. The proposal on “… monthly Basic Income support to female heads of 1.6 Crore households of Bengal — monthly ₹500 to families of General Category (yearly ₹6,000) and ₹1,000 to families of SC/ST (yearly ₹12,000)” is noteworthy. However, the fundamental assumption here is that “…The State’s monthly average Consumption Expenditure of a household is ₹5,249.” From that perspective, the proposal is to cover 10–20 percent of the consumption or to boost consumption expenditure by the same percentages. There are two questions here. The first is related to the data estimates. According to All India Rural Financial Inclusion Survey 2016–17 (NAFIS), released in August 2018 by the NABARD, the average monthly consumption expenditure of rural Indian households — agricultural and non-agricultural — was Rs 6,646 in 2015–16. Considering at least 8 percent inflation, the same figure stands at Rs. 9,765 in 2020–21. Therefore, one thing needs to be noted here: TMC’s proposal in no way talks of taking Bengal’s consumption levels to the national levels through the proposed subsidy. Second, the other way to boost consumption estimates is through job creation, and creating an enabling environment for investment. Here the manifesto is clear failure, like the dispensation’s policies over the last decade.

Yet, there are 2–3 important elements that deserve mention in TMC’s manifesto. In an essay in the Financial Times on 15 April 2020, Amartya Sen reiterated the need for equity and the distribution aspects of development by quoting the example of how life expectancy at birth in England and Wales increased during the war decades. TMC manifesto seems to have drawn a lesson from this. Therefore, its food security dimension that has been placed in the manifesto, especially from the perspective of storage and distribution, is indeed laudable. Yet, the question remains with the implementability. The party has been accused of corruption and usurption of resources at all levels that has led to a huge uproar among the victims. Further even, its disaster management has largely been a failure as has been witnessed in the case of the cyclone Amphan. The dispensation has so far revealed a myopic vision towards long-term adaptation to climate change in the vulnerable coastal regions of the Bay of Bengal, and neither the manifesto could provide anything concrete in these terms.

The BJP, with its national presence and financial muscle, could definitely produce a “populist” manifesto that it calls “Sankalpa Patra” for the Bengal elections. The strength lies with putting numbers to all that it intends to achieve. It has elements of equity from a holistic gender, community, and distribution perspective, talks of efficiency in the context of growth and industrialisation, but somewhere, as has been the generic problems of BJP’s dispensations, fails from a sustainability and environmental perspective. Yet, this is the only manifesto that has acknowledged the importance of “ease of doing business” and has talked of Invest Bangla (in line with Invest India), as also acknowledging the importance of MSMEs. However, as argued in an earlier ORF research, a government can ameliorate the business competitiveness of an economy in the medium run by addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Therefore, not addressing the issues of natural capital adequately will not help the cause of business. Further even, the manifesto has no mention on whether there will be any long-term strategy on adaptation to climate change in the context of the Bay of Bengal and the Sundarbans archipelago.

Yet, the manifesto extensively talks of disaster management, with concrete proposals of boosting human capital and physical capital. Further, the manifesto has a special space for Kolkata. Given the national vision of “Act East” and the growing importance of the Bay of Bengal space — with regard to Foreign Minister’s recent emphasis on BIMSTEC — Kolkata is ideally poised to be the growth hub and cultural pot-boiler in the Bay, as also for sustainably exploiting the blue economy potential. This strategic importance of Kolkata has been dismantled in the quagmire of centre-state “conflictual federalism” for years.

So, where do we go from here? One thing is pretty sure from the manifestos. Political parties are more interested in showing the carrots that are readily saleable to their electorate. The concern of a broader development vision over the long-term is therefore missing. A few successful dispensations that have converted underdevelopment to development in a region have tended to be in power for longer periods. One of the examples happens to be the dispensation under Naveen Patnaik in Odisha that has helped the cause of development of underdeveloped regions through industrialisation, thereby curbing insurgencies, and has also evolved with some of the best disaster management practices. On the contrary, West Bengal had a dispensation for 34 years that was grossly responsible for catapulting the state to a developmental nadir! This election, therefore, defines the fate of the State for the decades to come.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Nilanjan Ghosh

Nilanjan Ghosh

Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh is a Director at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. In that capacity, he heads two centres at the Foundation, namely, the ...

Read More +