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The Bharatiya Janata Party’s long-awaited manifesto was finally released today as the first phase of polls for the 2014 general elections opened in India’s northeast. Though delayed, the BJP’s guiding document has revealed itself to be quite impressive in terms of new thinking and foci of the Party. Moving beyond staid 20th century mantras, the BJP promises to explore the implementation of carbon credits, green technology, and participate in international efforts to reduce global warming.

Overzealous analysts need to be reminded at times that a manifesto is not a policy document but a declaration of guiding principles; a manifesto does not usually dwell on intricate field-specific details as a bill might but states broad outlines of a vision. To expect more is not just foolish but a failure to understand the medium and platform.

Nuclear Policy

The BJP’s manifesto declares that the Party’s government will pursue nuclear power as a part of India’s energy mix. In conjunction with the section on environmental protection, this is heartening news. With well over 100,000 deaths per annum in India as a result of coal power-induced air pollution, the BJP’s open mind to nuclear power is welcome from an ecological and health perspective as well as in terms of energy security.

The manifesto also mentions India’s ambitious thorium programme which, after decades of research, is beginning to show some promise with work on India’s Advanced Heavy Water Reactor scheduled to break ground in 2017. While thorium research gets barely two or three lines in the manifesto, it indicates that some effort has gone into the framing of the policy – the issue gets a complete miss in the manifestos of other parties.

Nuclear policy has two components – energy and defence. On defence, the BJP promises to regularly update India’s nuclear doctrine and maintain a minimum credible deterrent whose definition may change with evolving geostrategic realities. Interestingly, the Congress Party manifesto skips the word ‘minimum’ – however, considered alongside Congress policy over the last ten years, it is unlikely that this omission hints at a nuclear arms race and was probably just a drafting error. The BJP’s manifesto implies the welcome measure of constant review and fine-tuning to the country’s nuclear doctrine.

Foreign Policy

The BJP’s manifesto promises a fundamental reboot and reorienting of India’s foreign policy. BJP prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi had indicated a pivot to Asia in his speeches and it is reflected in the manifesto as well. The BJP states its intention to ignore big power interests and focus on Asia via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation instead. In fact, the United States does not even get a mention in this new orientation. A Modi-led government would seek solutions to most of its problems – cross-border terrorism, narcotics trafficking, climate change, infrastructure development – in its own neighbourhood.

A truly refreshing factor in the BJP manifesto is that it abandons the formulaic homage to non-alignment and socialism which the Congress manifesto continues to do. Instead, the BJP wishes to build a web of allies further India’s national interests, a marked departure from Jawaharlal Nehru’s avoidance of such groupings and pacts.

Rather than rely on a strictly materialist foundation of trade, the BJP intends to reach out to South and Southeast Asia via cultural ties, tourism, and educational links as well as economic tethering. The BJP will also reach out to the Indian diaspora internationally as liaisons between their adopted or host countries and their country of origin. This will create more substantial people-to-people relations than merely state-to-state and capitalise on Indian soft power.

The BJP also avoids the pitfall of doctrinaire brotherhood with any country or people unlike the Congress which promises support to Palestine and speaks of the goodwill of socialist countries. The BJP also ignores the issue of a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, confident that India’s economic and military achievements will more surely bring it the seat than diplomatic hankering alone.

The BJP is also aware of the poor state of the country’s foreign service. The manifesto promises that the service strength will be augmented but given the shortage and underdevelopment of skilled labour in related fields, this must be a long-term goal.

Defence Policy

A positive sign in the BJP’s manifesto is that it discusses full-spectrum defence. Not content with merely clearing defence hardware procurement backlogs and a hat-tip to indigenous production, the BJP raises issues of self defence, civil defence, shortage of personnel, technology, streamlining of bureaucratic processes, research, and private sector involvement in defence. This is a comprehensive agenda to say the least, but given the track record of previous governments and the infamous Indian legislative and administrative systems, perhaps a little too ambitious for one term.

Foreign policy is primarily an intellectual exercise and nuclear policy is the same with a significant scientific addendum. As such, they are fairly simple to formulate and execute. However, defence policy is a gargantuan beast of interlocking dependencies and much harder to tackle. The BJP’s plans for Indian defence have a significant dependence on several other sectors – education, labour, energy, research & development, foreign policy, industry, and law to name just a few. To deliver on defence, the BJP will have to also deliver on all the interlocking fields to a considerable extent. Nonetheless, vision knows no limits on scope or political term and as a directional guide for Indian defence, the BJP’s agenda is commendable.

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Every expert wishes manifestos carried more details in his or her area of expertise, but keeping in mind the limitations of the exercise, the BJP’s manifesto in foreign, nuclear, and defence policies is fairly thorough. A reevaluation of foreign states in their relative importance to India is promised and a complete overhaul of the defence sector is also envisaged. On nuclear policy, despite the slight difference in wording, more of the same can be expected from both the BJP and the Congress. However, the BJP has not hinted at abandoning the policy of minimum credible deterrence and has rejected fixed notions of what constitutes “minimum” by promising constant evaluation. In this sense, the BJP’s policy is more dynamic and responsive but the esoteric nature of the field means that little impact will be noted on a day-to-day basis.

In the battle of manifestos, the BJP showed up late but with definitely the most impressive document. Older political warhorses, deadened by the experience of previous elections and manifestos, will consider the BJP’s election promises cynically; the youth, not yet robbed of their optimism, will dare to dream. No matter, as the Good Book tells us, where there is no vision, the people perish (Míshlê 29:18); this is a good vision to have.

This post appeared on Daily News & Analysis on April 07, 2014.