What the manifestoes really promise

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What the manifestoes really promise

Tuesday, 16 April 2019 | PK Vasudeva

While the Congress’ 2019 document deals with ‘national security’ more extensively than the previous one, the BJP's 2014 vision paper was far more comprehensive and focussed on the issue than what has been presented this time

Political parties prepare election manifestoes with an intention to lure the people, so that they vote keeping in mind the attractive sops offered by them. With an eye on the most popular vote, the two mainstream parties — the BJP and the Congress — maintained their focus on populist sectors like agriculture, economy, urban development and national security. But voters do not really take these manifestoes seriously for they know that they are presented in an exaggerated form, some of which are difficult to be fulfilled. However, some of them are achievable and is accepted as such.

This time around, both parties laid great emphasis on “national security” because of the prevailing hostile environment with our neighbours.

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi  roped in Lt Gen DS Hooda, former head of Northern Command, Indian Army, and surgical strikes hero to head  its task force on national security and prepare a vision document on it. The party’s manifesto that talked about reforms towards national security included some of the recommendations made by the high-profile team. Some of the ideas include the appointment of Chiefs of Defence Staff (CDS), allotment of adequate defence budget for the modernisation of the armed forces, aggressive stance towards terrorism and  a review of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).

While the BJP gave top billing to “national security,” the Congress placed employment and economy above “national security.” Besides the placement of “national security” in the pecking order of issues, both manifestoes are rather sketchy and silent about a national security strategic doctrine.

The BJP declared that it will “speed up the purchases of outstanding defence-related equipment and weapons and equip the armed forces with modern equipment to strengthen the strike capability of the armed forces”. In reality, this assurance does not match the party’s rhetoric on acquisition of defence equipment because the defence budget this fiscal fell below 1.44 per cent of the GDP, lowest since 1962.

Despite the BJP’s somewhat patchy record of beefing up the capabilities of our forces, the party seems to have scored over the Congress. Part of the reason is, of course, the aggressive actions taken by the Modi Government — surgical strikes after Uri, Balakot air strike and Mission Shakti. But part of the reason is also the clear and unambiguous stand taken by it on issues of nationalism and internal security, reflected in the “policy of zero tolerance” against “terrorism and extremism” and “giving a free-hand to security forces in combating terrorism”.

The Congress’ manifesto promised to review the AFSPA and the Disturbed Areas Act in Jammu & Kashmir while emphasising that “dialogue is the only way to understand the aspirations of the people of the three regions of Jammu & Kashmir and find a solution to their issues.” This gives an impression that it is soft on separatism. Further, as expected, the BJP reiterated its resolve to abrogate Article 370, which gives autonomous status to Jammu & Kashmir and annul Article 35A of the Constitution, which the party finds discriminatory against non-permanent residents and women in the Valley.

“We believe that Article 35A is an obstacle towards the development of the State. We will take all steps to ensure a safe and peaceful environment for all residents. We will make all efforts to ensure the safe return of Kashmiri Pandits. We will provide financial assistance for the resettlement of refugees from West Pakistan, Pakistan occupied Kashmir (POK) and Chhamb,” read the BJP’s manifesto.

But the one glaring omission in both manifestoes has been the absence of a “nuclear weapons programme.” In its 2014 manifesto, the BJP had promised to “revise and update its nuclear doctrine to make it relevant to challenges of current times.” But in 2019, there is no mention of the nuclear weapons programme. The Congress’ manifesto is limited to giving a push to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).  However, its manifesto somewhat scores over the BJP’s as it takes a broader view on “national security” and talks about things like data, cyber, finance, communication and trade security. The BJP, on the other hand, has a much narrower focus and does not even mention these dimensions of “national security” that will be critical in future.

On another critical issue — restructuring the higher defence management — the Congress’ manifesto talks of establishing the office of CDS for making him a member of Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The BJP’s manifesto is silent on this important issue. On the two most immediate external threats to national security — Pakistan and China — there is virtually nothing in the manifestoes of both parties. The BJP does not even mention Pakistan except in the context of refugees. Similarly, the Congress has not made it clear as to what steps it will take to stop the export of terrorism from Pakistan. It just talks about persuading other countries to compel Pakistan to end its support to terrorist groups. Even on China, except for beefing up border defences and building infrastructure along the borders, there is no outlining of an approach that either of the national party proposed.

Both parties have expressed commitment to promoting self-reliance in defence equipment through indigenisation of production and encouraging private sector participation. “Make in India” in Defence is unlikely to take off without privatisation. Little wonder between 2012 and July 2018, FDI in defence stood at $1.31 million. Promise of varied skills training is good but what about lateral entry into other services of those retiring young? Instead of OROP, the BJP did allot one-time pension increase and grapevine is this happened due to the abhorrence of the Finance Minister and the NSA.

How will the BJP justify denying NFU to serving soldiers? By telling the court among other reasons that the uniformed are staying in “palatial houses” when all other Government services are authorised NFU, including the central police forces? Besides, which nation places its military below police forces?

(The writer is a retired professor in international trade)

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