Election manifestos are not mandatory in India. Even leading national parties don’t always issue manifestos for state & local elections. Many regional & state parties just spout promises during speeches & rallies. Written & publicly accessible documents of election promises are not available.
The obvious outcome is that most election promises are soon forgotten by the political parties & voters, they cannot be tracked for implementation, performance of ruling parties cannot be studied at the end of their terms, and we cannot judge & vote better in subsequent elections. Media evaluations of party promises, policies & performance are often biased, incomplete or unreliable.
A few states are going to the polls now. Studying the past performance & current promises of various parties in the fray can be very frustrating, simply because the previous & current manifestos are not readily available. Some parties only talk about their promises & policies. Some parties make videos, post their promises & policies on Facebook & social media. Some issue manifestos but limit circulation, or only print hard copies and don’t publish online. If, for example, one wants to study DMK’s promises & performance over the last few elections, it’s almost impossible because there is no archive of previous manifestos. A party’s self-appraisal of its past performance can only be biased, if not misleading. And some parties publish their manifesto only in the local language, which makes it a harder study for a keen citizen outside the state who can’t speak or read the local language.
What does the Election Commission say about this sorry state of affairs?
In a letter sent to all parties in April 2015, the EC ‘desires’ (not mandates) that parties send hard & soft copy of manifestos to the commission ‘whenever’ they are issued. It’s not clear if the EC will maintain a publicly accessible archive of all such manifestos it receives.
But the key takeaway is that parties are not mandated to issue manifestos. Parties can getaway with making promises in speeches, debates & interviews, which can soon be forgotten if published manifestos are not readily accessible. While media evaluations of election promises & policies are useful, voters need to be given the choice to study primary sources of information (which are party manifestos), evaluate & make-up their own mind on parties & candidates.
The next question – should the contents of the manifestos be regulated? Just like SEBI prescribes formats for company financial statements, can the EC prescribe a common format and make party manifestos more readable? The answer is a resounding yes.
EC must do much more.