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May 16, 2019

What Election Manifestos Tell Us About This Election

Last month, various political parties released their election manifestos. Manifestos play an important role in the electoral process: apart from promoting political parties' visions, they are crucial signaling devices, shedding light on party priorities and ideologies. What political parties actually do once they are elected to power is a different matter, but comparing electoral promises sheds light on the tides of political discourse in the country. We ran a word count analysis of the election manifestos of the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the union elections of 2009, 2014, and 2019. There are a number of interesting takeaways from this analysis. 


First, it is intriguing to note that the 2019 INC and BJP manifestos are more similar than different, in terms of their usage of words, which was not the case in the 2009 or in the 2014 elections. In the 2009 manifestos, the words emphasised include ‘pledges’ and ‘society’ for the INC, and ‘power’ and ‘food’ for the BJP. In 2014, we saw a different pivot, with the INC more focused on words like ‘women’ and ‘Right’, and the BJP had ‘technology’ and ‘health’ in its top used words. Curiously, in 2019, ‘development’, ‘education’, and ‘security’ feature in the top 30 words of both manifestos. While there is a convergence on issues to concentrate on, the solutions to these issues that both parties identify are vastly different. It does, however, suggest that this election emphasises priorities that are more similar than they are different.


Second, taking the most-used words as a proxy for political priorities, the 2019 manifestos appear to be disconnected from issues that are important to voters. A recent all-India survey conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms shows that employment opportunities and healthcare services are the top two concerns for voters in this election. Similarly, a recent Pew Research Center study lists jobs and healthcare as worries for Indian citizens going to the ballot box. ‘Health/healthcare’, while in the top 30 words of the INC’s 2014 manifesto, are dropped from the top words in the 2019 one. Similarly, the top-ranking words of the 2014 BJP manifesto, ‘health/healthcare’ and ‘technology’, do not feature in the top ranks of the 2019 one. Neither manifesto contains ‘jobs’ or ‘employment’ in its top 30 words, which as shown, are important to voters.


Third, the word count analysis highlights that although both parties employ a patrimonial style of operation, the INC has attempted to disguise it while the BJP has emphasised it. The BJP’s main criticism against the INC is that it is built on dynastic power, stifling meritocracy as a principle of governance. Our word count analysis shows that in the 2009 manifesto, the word ‘Gandhi’ featured in the top 20 most-used words, underscoring the criticism of a Gandhi-dominated INC. However, in the 2014 and 2019 manifestos, the word disappears from the list. On the other hand, the 2019 BJP manifesto comprises the word ‘Modi’ in its top 30 words, which was absent from the 2014 one. In fact, no individual leader’s name featured in either of the previous BJP manifestos. While the concentration of power in the INC originates from family rule and legacy, for the BJP, it is the party members and supporters who have pushed Prime Minister Modi to the top. Hence the concentration of power in the leadership of the BJP, which is anecdotally known, is made evident in this word count analysis. How this growing trait will play out in shaping the new cadre of BJP Members of Parliament is currently too premature to judge.


Admittedly, this word count analysis provides only a part of the picture; there are several elements of political economy that are not captured in our word lists. Still, the current debate assumes that this election is a battle between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi – and this linguistic study confirms the suspicion that in the absence of distinct political priorities, voters will increasingly rely on personalities rather than policy arguments, implying a quasi-presidential election. In this way, the political debate is markedly distinct from that of the 2009 and 2014 polls. It remains to be seen whether these word choices, in addition to other campaign moves, will fortify  the parties in their crusades to rule the country.

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