Column: Making manifestos meaningful

Written by Arindam K Bhattacharya | Updated: Nov 26 2013, 08:36am hrs
It is again time for election manifestos. Before every Lok Sabha elections, generally preceded by several state elections, political parties come out with their mandatory promises to the electorate. I am not sure how many among the voters read them before voting. Few I suspect, and probably even fewer track their implementation. But it is a time-tested ritual for every party, a ritual which cannot be ignored or denigrated. So we have manifesto committees being set up. And as with any committee with members having their own agendas, every wish gets included in the long wish-list, and every vote bank is targeted. As a result we end up with thick manifestos with proliferation of schemes and numerous freebies catering to different sections of our society. Hence, it was with surprise that I read a statement in a newspaper from a leader of one of the national parties that their party's manifesto should be made more focused and shorter, a manifesto which should be read and acted upon rather than launched and forgotten.

I cannot agree more with this sentiment of focusing and simplifying the election manifestos of our political parties. In fact I will go as far as to say that we should focus on a one-point agenda for Indiaimproving the productivity of our people. Everything else follows from it. Productivity is the fundamental lever that drives improvement in the living standards of a society, the overarching objective that I am sure no political party will be opposed to. The biggest lever of productivity is more and better jobs, not more schemes and bigger freebies. I have nothing against schemes and handouts being promised in the manifestos. Every political party in the world does it to favor their supporters. We have to do it to target the really under privileged sections of our society. But in this rush for populism we seem to forget the old Chinese proverb, Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Today, unfortunately, the competitive populism among political parties has moved the discourse away from this critical agenda on productivity and employment. The manifestos offer fish to many voters, but do not talk about teaching them how to fish.

Of course, there are other contributors to improving productivity like innovation and new technology or better health and skills of people, but all these come to naught if we do not generate well paying jobs for our healthy and skilled people. Unfortunately, on this most critical metric we are failing as a nation. We are not creating enough new jobs when we need to create 15 to 20 million a year for our young and growing population, even when we do create new jobs majority of them are low skill, low wage jobs in the informal or unorganised sector.

But the political parties cannot be wholly blamed for this. What gets measured gets done goes the old adage. In India, we do not track employment generation (or job losses for that matter) on real-time basis. So it is neither part of the daily debates in parliament nor does it make the breaking news in the media. The slowdown in the last two years has led to tens of thousands of jobs being lost as many companies downsized their workforce and hundreds of small enterprises shut shop but this has not shown up in the newspaper headlines or political discourse. If it had happened in the US there would have been an immediate impact on the Dow Jones, influenced the rates set by the Fed, and even lost the election for an incumbent President if a presidential election was being fought. In India, the employment data comes out once in several years, there are different sources for this data which do not always agree with each other. By the time the real picture on jobs created (or lost) is known, it is too late to change the direction of the policies to impact these figures in the short-term. Once we start measuring this real-time to whatever accuracy possible, we hopefully will have competition between the political parties on how many jobs they have created and how many they will create if electeda more healthy trend than competing on populist schemes alone.

But simply measuring and putting these metrics in the manifestos will not create jobs. The manifesto has to acknowledge and address why the owner-head of a chemical company in recent conversation told me that instead of focusing his energy on employment creating growth, he spends more time on thinking of how he can replace labour with more expensive capital. They have to address why India's share of global exports in the labour-intensive textile industry, which can generate millions of new jobs, has remained stagnant around 3-4% over last two decades while China's share has increased from less than 10% to nearly 35%, from $10billion to over $150 billion. Even a latecomer like Vietnam, which started exporting only in 2005, has built a share of 3.5% of global exports, only slightly less than India's 4% which has been exporting for decades.

There are many drivers of employment generation. More investments, better infrastructure, easier business regulations may all find mention in the manifestos. They are voter-neutral and seen as good for the country. Reforming our antiquated labour laws does not. It impacts the organised labour and powerful trade unions, and in a culture of vote bank politics remains a no-no for the political parties. But if we don't reform our labour laws and commit to them publicly we will not create those jobs we sorely need.

Manifestos can remain a long wish-list of populist schemes for every voting block out there or become a call to action for the nation to improve the living standards by consistently improving productivity, and commit to a measurable objective of creating more and better jobs for our people. That is a worthy aspiration for any manifesto, one that will be focused, shorter and more readable.

The author is managing director, The Boston Consulting Group, India. Views are personal