Sonia Gandhi and LK Advani campaigning - differences are narrowing
By Yogendra Yadav
Centre for the Study of Developing Societies
There are two ways of analysing the election manifesto of any political party. First, what are the immediate benefits or detriment it brings to the party? And second, what impact will it have on the political map of the country in 10 to 20 years?
In politics, it doesn't matter what ideology one really believes in. The truth of wielding power lies in what parties are forced to say to the electorate.
What principles the party has at heart is less important than what is actually being said and promised to the voters.
A glance at this year's manifestos of India's two main parties, Congress and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) shows that despite their ideological differences, both share similar long-term strategies on the major issues which confront India.
Their policies have largely converged on the crucial policy areas of the economy, security and foreign relations.
Even after much hard selling the truth is that both the Congress and the BJP have fundamentally the same economic policy.
Be it their stance towards the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or how far to push the liberalisation of India's economy, they are in essential agreement.
The only distinction that remains is between the size of the sops the two parties have to offer.
One is promising tax relief on $6,000 (£4,000), the other is simply lowering the bar to $3,000 (£2,000).
This is not a fundamental difference of principle - more a difference of emphasis.
On matters of foreign policy and national security Congress has in effect inched a few steps closer to the BJP.
Congress has spoken about forming a single central investigative agency and reintroducing Pota (Prevention of Terrorism Act) by the back door - both reflect exactly the same line towed by their arch rival the BJP for years.
The Congress has only dressed up both policies in a different language.
The gulf that essentially existed 15 years ago between the Congress and the BJP on their views on country's foreign policy has narrowed down considerably.
Interestingly, the gap between them hasn't faded because the BJP has come closer to Congress but because Congress has edged towards the the BJP.
Here, it is important to clarify that after the Mumbai (Bombay) attack last November, no party contesting the elections can even hint at softening the approach towards Pakistan.
There is also the recognition by both that foreign policy cannot be focussed on one region alone but must be global.
BJP AND MUSLIMS
As far as tempting the voters is concerned, the feeling I get after reading BJP's manifesto is that the party is losing hope of forming the next government.
A political party which is confident of clinching power would not usually make scores of promises of the kind the BJP makes in its manifesto.
On the issue of wooing the Muslim community, I feel their manifesto has made a small yet fundamentally significant shift.
It is worth remembering that the BJP had not issued a manifesto for either of the last two general elections or for 11 long years.
So it is not unexpected to see that they have revived their rhetoric on controversial Ram temple dispute [in Ayodhya].
The BJP also wants special status for the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
But the language the BJP now uses makes me feel that the party has mellowed a little.
On the issue of a Ram temple, the party isn't saying that it will build the temple on the "same disputed site".
Their manifesto says that all alternatives will be explored to build the temple, which include consultations and seeking a judicial course of action.
The language emphasising the party's long-pursued commitment to build the temple on the same site is now missing. The BJP has taken a few steps back and in my opinion it's a positive shift.
I believe that India's Muslim voters today are pawns in the hands of both the Congress and the BJP.
This must stop.
Indian Muslims are playing into the hands of some political parties. And when I look at the BJP's manifesto from that point of view, I see signs of subtle cracks in that tragedy which in my view are very significant.
When the BJP talks about the ministry for minorities, the party does not say it will close it down, despite that being an easy position to take.
On the contrary, the BJP says it will direct the ministry on a more constructive path. It will use the ministry to provide education for the minorities.
The BJP itself says that the party will work towards development of all the Indian languages including Tamil, Urdu and Sanskrit. But it carefully avoids mentioning Hindi alone which can be easily labelled as hypocrisy.
I see this as a small yet crucial sign. I do not know what benefit the BJP will reap out of it, but this is a good sign for our country and democracy
The Congress party manifesto is a collection of skilfully chosen words which are woven like pearls in a string of promises to woo the people.
I will not attempt to check how valid their promises are.
But Congress has taken two more steps on its policy on minorities since its last manifesto.
First, it talks about the formation of the Equal Opportunity Commission and second, about giving a reservation to the economically deprived members of the Muslim community.
The manifesto of the left parties on the other hand, looks very serious. But the truth is that electoral battles are neither fought, won or lost with mere manifestos.
The problem with the left front lies buried somewhere in the wide gulf between its ideology and reality.
And it seems very unlikely that many will believe in their promises, though the left clearly shows more ''vision'' in their manifesto than does any other party.