The election manifesto as a guide to governance

By Benjamin Lyngdoh

In the Meghalaya MLA/MDC/MP elections of recent years, the election manifesto has become less significant or of no significance at all. The number of people who talk about it and especially seek and read it has declined manifold. Perhaps, this is the main reason why the political parties do not give much importance to it. Even if importance is given, the election manifesto is prepared as a mere formality for photo-ops and publicity only. The parties know that hardly anyone will give it a serious thought. The voters too have resigned to the fact that the document is not meant as an implementation and/or monitoring tool. As a result, we tend to know less about the real intentions of the parties and how they plan to operate if in government. It is time to reverse the trend and tell the political parties to get serious on this matter.
To start with, an election manifesto represents the brains of a political party in the context of a particular state/region. It underlines the vision, mission, values and purpose of a party. It also specifically delineates its principles and goals. It mentions specifically how it plans to govern on critical sectors like education, health, youth affairs, sports, environmental protection, law and order, peace and security, etc. The formulation of the action plans requires ground research for them to be valid and reliable. This is what the voters are missing out on if the subject-matter of an election manifesto ceases to be taken seriously. There will be less information on the stand and policies of the political parties on important issues. It is to be noted that no political party remains the same; they always change and evolve with time. In such a case, how are we supposed to compare and vote? It is generally observed that in Meghalaya the voters vote on the basis of the qualities of a candidate and not the party. But, looking at the manner in which the sitting MLAs are changing parties, it would be fair to argue that the age old trend is starting to change drastically. It is because of this situation that the election manifesto has become imperative. There is always talk about being an informed voter. In the absence of a manifesto, how would you be informed about a political party’s intent?
In the elections of recent years, it is found that the quality of discourse in campaign meetings has declined. There is less talk on important issues and more on demeaning and deriding the rival candidates. The voters who attend such meetings become mere spectators to some monologue with no scope to counter-question. Many enjoy the bric-a-brac which the candidates throw at each other. Music and dance is everywhere. It is just a futile exercise.
This is what happens when there is no election manifesto. There is no basis for what the candidate/party says and there is no scope for cross-checking. There is no way to evaluate what the sitting candidate/government did during its term of office. When you cannot speak about the past then how can you talk about the future? This gap is to be bridged by an election manifesto. The optimum way of moving forward is that no candidate/party shall be allowed to campaign unless they have a well-drawn out manifesto. When they speak they must do so on the basis of their own manifesto and that of the rival candidates. No character assassination must be allowed. Most importantly, they must not be allowed to talk about what they will do in future and make vague promises until and unless there is a constituency-wise evaluation of what has been done in the last term. As voters, it is time to get radical!
The generic form of an election manifesto is that it contains policies, promises and plans of a party which would be implemented when it comes to power. It is time to tweak this understanding. Just mere statements are not enough. The party must mention the strategies for implementation. A common statement made in the election manifestos of all the political parties is about ‘making education and health sectors of Meghalaya better’. It is important to lay down the strategies of how they will be made better? For every promise, there must be a well-defined strategy of implementation. In education, mention what is going to be done about dilapidated educational infrastructure, grants to aided institutions, timely payment of salary to teachers, upgradation of syllabi, implementation of national education policy, 2020, etc. In health, mention what is going to be done about opening of more PHCs, upgrade of PHCs to CHCs, problems with mid-day meals in schools, etc. Then only will things change. Beyond that, the voters and the people at large must actively take part in holding the candidates and parties accountable. This starts with reading and analysing the manifestos of all the parties as and when they are out. Study the current manifestos in relation to the earlier manifesto and what has happened in Meghalaya in the last five years. In the process, it will not be surprising to find our choice of candidate/party changing.
There is also a need to change the means by which an election manifesto is circulated to the public. In addition to the print document, it would be better if it is also circulated in electronic form. Plus, make the manifesto multilingual. It would be even better if they are also made in the form of info-graphics and video clips. Those who find difficulty in reading can learn a lot through the video clips. We are yet to see a political party which in addition to its own manifesto releases ‘another document/clip’ which compares its manifesto with the others. Or are the parties scared of over-selling themselves by involving in such an exercise? If that be the case then they have no reason to be in politics. An election manifesto is a guide to governance. The only way to have good governance is to have checks and balances. This can only be achieved if there is a tool to evaluate and monitor performance; a tool which act as a link between the past and future. The long-ignored election manifesto is that tool. It has been hiding in plain sight from the voters. It is time to recognise its value.
In the end, all of the above can be achieved only if the political parties are discouraged from releasing their manifestoes at the last moment. In the previous elections it is found that most parties releases them only a few days before polling. How are the voters supposed to read and analyse it? It is a ploy being played by all the political parties just to gain publicity. It would be better if the voters demand from the parties that the manifestoes be released by December, 2022 end, so that by the time the election happens in last week February/early March, 2023, the voters would have had enough time to go through it and make an informed decision.
(The writer teaches at NEHU; Email – [email protected])