The ethics of manifestos and budgets

It would be unreasonable to expect budgets and manifestos to become realistic documents, bereft of high-flying promises and an aspirational colourful future.

Published: 12th February 2019 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th February 2019 03:03 AM   |  A+A-

Now that the Union and state budgets have been presented, it is the turn of election manifestos to grab the limelight. With Lok Sabha polls due in a few months, all major political parties are surely in the process of drafting their manifestos. From our long familiarity with several of them, no manifesto can surprise us anymore. Those assigned the task of drafting them give free rein to their imagination
and come up with the most catchy promises. Insightful in their diagnoses, most poll promises are however fanciful in their prescriptions.

Any serious political party that wants to come to power has to be competitive in its promises. That forces the parties to offer drastic policies, ambitious programmes and general financial support to the needy, with no realistic appreciation of the fiscal situation of the government. The complex social and administrative fallouts of politically smart but sectarian policies finding place in a manifesto are seldom appreciated at the time of drafting. Promises that are useful to win votes often become liabilities once a party comes to power.

This becomes self-evident when a government presents a budget. While trying to translate promises into programmes and allocations in the budget, finance ministers often confront the chasm between electoral expediency and administrative realism. Many promises, particularly on employment generation and GDP growth, are not entirely within the control of the government. The complex factors that determine them can only be marginally influenced by the government’s policy instrument. So what was honey during the poll campaign turns out to be poison as the day of reckoning approaches. Manipulating figures, changing the rules of the game and managing statistics are all desperate and doomed practices.

Some figures are simply too unrealistic to achieve. Some promises are sure to be derailed by the trenchant inefficiency and corruption in the system. Unless revolutionary structural changes are seriously undertaken in the implementing machinery, all governments will encounter this appalling mismatch between promise and delivery. Unfortunately no political party seems to be really worried about the corrosion in the service delivery mechanism where vested interests, collusion, indifference and ineptitude reign. It is like trying to operate a high-voltage electrical appliance through a wiring meant for two plug points and four tube lights! Any refinement of the appliance will not yield the desired result.

It would be unreasonable to expect budgets and manifestos to become realistic documents, bereft of high-flying promises and an aspirational colourful future. But both can be ethical. The electorate should be helped by the intelligentsia and the better-informed citizens to discover the impracticality of flamboyant poll promises. Once the voters begin interrogating the non-seriousness of the promises, manifestos will eventually become less dreamy and more pragmatic.

Ours is a noisy polity. Controversies, unforeseen crises and politically explosive issues are fanned up on the eve of elections. They often serve as a fulcrum around which poll-eve debates revolve. Their luminosity blinds the voter from looking at the unfulfilled promises of the last election. Citizens should be empowered to ask the relevant questions, interrogate the failings and expose the unethical nature of impractical promises.

Budgets too should be subjected to this kind of accountability test. In the euphoria of a new budget, considerable public and media interest gets focused on the appreciation and critique of the new concessions and welfare measures in it. In this din, even the media forgets the announcements in the previous budget. In the accepted format of a government budget there is no provision to present the implementation status of the announcements made last year. (Even in a committee or board meeting it is obligatory to report the ‘action taken’ on the earlier decisions. But not so for a government budget.) So governments do not have the compulsion to look into the past, but are tempted to visualise the future and embellish the budget with a new set of promises. It is common knowledge that in any budget, what get fully implemented are the announcements that provide better perks to the organised sector. Everything else is compromised or partly implemented, including tax collection, development projects and social security schemes. As long as governments do not have to explain why programmes were not taken to their logical conclusion, finance ministers can afford to indulge in kite-flying.

The idea that manifestos can continue to be unrealistic and budgets can afford to be partly implemented is dangerous. It numbs the citizens into believing that nothing is really meant to be serious. It conveys that announcements are more important than performance. When promises and announcements lack conviction and their full implementation is left to the vagaries of the bureaucracy and its stereotypical excuses, it legitimises an unethical ecosystem. A valuable opportunity to steadily modernise the style of administration is lost in this lowering of expectations and complacency with half-hearted implementation.

Political parties drafting their manifestos for the forthcoming general election may be able to create ethical documents if only they visualise an interrogating and enlightened citizenry. Silence, gullibility and docility are the antidotes to true democracy.

K Jayakumar
Former Chief Secretary to Government of Kerala and former Vice Chancellor of Malayalam University

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