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Leash on hobbies, rehash of rival’s ideas

New Delhi, April 7: The BJP today released a manifesto predictably low on handouts and high on growth, and tried to soften its position on core Hindutva issues. In the social sector, though, it mostly rehashed the Congress’s ideas.

Accusing the UPA of a “free fall” in matters ranging from governance and economy to diplomacy and foreign policy over a “decade of decay”, the manifesto declares: “Things must change, and they must change now.”

It stresses “immediate and decisive action” to resolve the outstanding issues left behind by the current government.

The bulk of the 42-page document bears the stamp of Narendra Modi, who seems to have largely succeeded in scaling down the party’s stated position on issues related to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s inherently divisive agendas.

For instance, although the BJP has reaffirmed its old stance on abrogating Article 370, which gives Jammu and Kashmir a special status, it has indicated that the process will not move without discussions with “all stakeholders”.

Another Sangh obsession, the demand for a Ram temple in Ayodhya, is couched in unexpectedly temperate language. The manifesto merely says that “all possibilities within the framework of the Constitution” would be explored to facilitate its construction.

The passage on minorities, titled “Equal Opportunity”, notches a first for the BJP by emphasising that Urdu must be preserved and promoted —even though Sanskrit has been given the go-by.

Indeed, Modi himself used an Urdu expression at the launch of the document — saying he would never be guilty of “bud irade” (mala fide intentions) — which is being seen as a gesture to Muslims.

The manifesto insists that there would be “no place for either the perpetrators or exploiters of fear” in the party’s scheme.

However, the party’s prime ministerial candidate has been forced into several tradeoffs with a range of interest groups too, from drafting panel head Murli Manohar Joshi with his swadeshi baggage to the Sangh and its offspring such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The biggest setback for him has been the BJP’s rejection of foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail. In February, addressing a forum of Delhi traders, Modi had signalled he could leave the post-poll door ajar for foreign retailers.

Spokesperson Prakash Javadekar, however, hinted that the BJP had not cast its position on retail FDI in stone.

“The manifesto is only meant to show a direction in which our government could possibly move. The agenda of governance will be distinct,” he stressed.

Sources said the BJP’s caution about FDI in retail stemmed not just from the Sangh’s opposition but political expediency too.

“We have a core constituency of traders to pander to. They are a big pressure group,” a Delhi BJP leader said.

“Had we reversed our stand, they might have defected to the Aam Aadmi Party, as indeed many did before the Delhi elections. Arvind Kejriwal too has opposed retail FDI.”

The portions on the economy bear Modi’s signature, virtually replicating passages from a speech he had made in January this year at a BJP national council meeting.

It focuses on setting up global hubs of manufacturing; linking FDI to job and asset creation, infrastructure and the “acquisition of nice technology and specialised expertise”; ensuring at least a 50 per cent profit for farmers; making land acquisition transparent; reducing non-performing assets in banking; rationalising and simplifying the tax regime; and adopting the Gujarat template of a single window to green-flag start-ups.

Hoping that the young “new” voters would gravitate towards Modi, the manifesto unveils an agenda that includes setting up a National Youth Advisory Council and making student loans affordable.

The chapter on the social sector is titled “Leap Forward”, suggesting a vast improvement over the UPA’s record. But most of the promises are borrowed from the Congress-led coalition’s flagship programmes, or incorporate elements from laws enacted by the BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, or derive from schemes thought up by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government.

The new components are about bridging the digital divide separating schoolchildren, making higher education profession-oriented, and converting skill development into a “mission”, the last being a Modi hobby horse.