POLITICAL parties' manifestos are supposed to offer a road map giving travel directions, while also providing an analysis of the situation at hand and taking into account voter preferences. No wonder so much intellectual labour goes into the preparation of these documents to present a coherent vision to appeal to the voter.
This is election time in Pakistan. However, this election is unique in Pakistan for the limited campaign time available to the parties. And despite a short campaign season, most parties were too occupied sorting out court cases, disqualifications and a complicated nomination process to release party manifestos early on in the campaign.
The major political parties have only recently unveiled their manifestos. Yet again, with so much drama taking place around the PML-N's travails, the electorate is too distracted to pay serious attention to the party manifestos. In their freshly minted manifestos, all major political parties have pledged to reduce unemployment and housing shortages, and tackle the dearth of proper health and education facilities. This shows there is agreement on the main areas of service delivery. Some analysts have dubbed this unanimity on the main issues as an emerging consensus on a state welfare-oriented social policy
Voters are too distracted to pay serious attention to the manifestos.
The PPP manifesto focuses on hunger and poverty eradication, with greater investment in health and education. In addition, the provision of safe drinking water is a key pledge besides investing in working-class families and children. How this will be achieved has not been fleshed out though.
Most importantly, the PPP manifesto clubs together hunger and helplessness. I have never seen the word 'helplessness' in any manifesto. However, the word has neither been defined nor unpacked in such a way as to achieve complete clarity. It is an interesting concept, though, which goes to the heart of the current oppressive order which has prevented a vast chunk of the population from getting justice, employment and healthcare.
The overarching promise of deepening democracy is there just like the concept of strengthening democracy contained in the PML-N manifesto. The two parties appear to be on the same page in this area, bitten as both have been, at different times, by the sting of extra-democratic forces. In contrast, the PTI emphasises the strengthening of the federation. While this aspiration is appreciable, its enunciation against the backdrop of the 18th Amendment, which de-federalised governance, is a bit troubling. Eradicating corruption, the signature tune of the party, is also included. Apart from these big-picture issues, the manifestos stress urgent service delivery issues.
Such focus also shows progressive deterioration of the quality of the manifestos where the big picture and vision are concerned. As a contrast, take the PPP manifesto for the 1970 election. Reading the manifesto more than four decades later, it still comes across as a rigorously and analytically argued document advocating a stirring vision for social transformation. That manifesto offered a cogent analysis of Pakistan's deep-seated problems and suggested a radically transformative agenda on nationalisation and the economic and political structure of the country as well as an independent foreign policy. No wonder the manifesto caught the imagination of the electorate.
However, for a manifesto to be stirring and visionary, the supporting social environment also needs to be pro-change. This environment existed at the time of the 1970 election. The manifesto of the Awami League of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman also revolved around the simple six-point formula enunciated early on.
The PPP's 1977 manifesto ploughed more or less the 1970 furrow, helped along by the charismatic Zulifkar Ali Bhutto. Since then, party manifestos have been short on vision and analyses of the existing political and social dynamics in Pakistan. Instead of offering these, beAAsides solutions, political parties are putting forth retail manifestos which are service delivery-oriented.
In one sense, it is a plus point that political parties are focusing more on service delivery. But looked at in another way, the 2018 manifestos lack radical analysis and fall short of offering a bold vision for the economy, foreign and domestic policies, growing inequality, civil and military ties and the budgetary squeeze. Unless these big issues are not tackled head on, political manifestos are going to become progressively paler versions of the PPP's 1970 manifesto. Only the PML-N, given its recent travails, seeks to discuss some of these issues in the general language of respecting the integrity of the vote. Yet this is only a baby step in a long journey for popular sovereignty.