A Voter’s Guide to Reading a Manifesto

Informed Voting for the 2024 Elections

This is a guest blog authored by Aathma Sudhir Kumar, Advocate and Shivang Uniyal, LAMP Fellow (2021-22)

Etymologically, ‘Manifesto’ is derived from the Latin ‘manifestum’, meaning clear or conspicuous. A common Hindi translation is ‘Sankalp Patra’ or ‘Ghoshna Patra’, meaning a declaration of intent or vision. The expansion of the modern state governed by principles such as the rule of law gave rise to political parties, first in the United States of America in the 18th century and eventually in India in the 19th century, to accommodate differing perspectives on what principles must govern the people. With political parties also came the idea of a set of promises – a Manifesto – to garner public support so the desired principles could be implemented. With its first use in 1620, manifestos gained political prominence during the 19th century, with popular documents such as the Communist Manifesto getting traction among the public. Political manifestos were also used as a measure of resistance against British rule in India. The Delhi Manifesto, issued in 1929 as a response to Lord Irwin’s declaration regarding the Round Table Conference, is one example. 

However, with independence and subsequent creation of a multi-party state in India, a phenomenon emerged; political manifestos became a tool for consolidating power and meting out promises that focused on development, specific needs of the public and, at times, appeasing the voter.

With the sound declaration of becoming the third-largest economy in the world by 2030, adding to the aspirations of reclaiming the title of a Vishwaguru and the potential to define the next 1,000 years for India, 2024 becomes a particularly crucial election. The political manifesto thus becomes the single most important document to be released by any party in the next few months. It might as well act as a blueprint for the grand vision of the ruling dispensation.

With a single document gaining increasing importance over the years, it becomes pertinent to analyze and compare the political manifestos of the two largest political parties in India in the run-up to possibly the biggest election in the world, both in terms of monetary value and implications for the future: the Bharatiya Janata Party (‘BJP’) and the Indian National Congress (‘INC’). The analysis helps us understand the reality of common perceptions around issues such as populism and understand the changing political landscape of India between 2014 and 2019 in terms of political dynamics, policy priorities, and public sentiment in India, and enables us to predict possibilities for 2024. 


For this purpose, we went through over 1,500 promises from both parties for the 2014 and 2019 General Elections. The promises were evaluated for the presence or absence of 5 factors: 

1. Development: Promises that include provisions of basic amenities (food, shelter, clothing, electricity, transportation, communication and water), improved physical and mental health (reducing environmental pollution, providing a nutritious diet, medical care, etc.), economic welfare (employment and standard of living), human development (enhancement of literacy, vocational education etc.), social development (involvement and participation of people in social, political and economic processes) and improved equity in opportunity and resources.  

2. Populism: Promises that appeal to human emotion, ingrained in rational or irrational beliefs, and do not contribute to the human, social or physical development of the country. These promises focus on short-term gains or issues that resonate emotionally among the voters. This often includes promises that are not based on evidence and may not lead to tangible outcomes that benefit the nation as a whole.

3. Vagueness: Promises that were left open-ended and lacked specificity. These provide only the substance of the promise (“what”) and miss out on the financial resources required (“how much”), timeline (“by when”), the process (“how”), the target group (“for whom”) or the reason for the inclusion of the promise (“why”). 

4. Inclusion of Vulnerable Sections: Promises consisting of either Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, Economically Weaker Sections, Women, Children, Disabled, People living with HIV/AIDS, and Minorities among others as their target group.

5. Overall readability of the document: Use of Flesch Score to identify readability. The index usually results in a number between 0 and 100, with 0 being unreadable and 100 being readable. The lower the score, the more difficult it is to read a document.

Scoring and Categorisation: We assigned scores to individual promises based on presence or absence of each factor. For example:

  1. Development (D): 1 if present, 0 if absent
  2. Populism (P): 1 if present, 0 if absent
  3. Vagueness (V): 1 if present, 0 if absent
  4. Inclusion of Vulnerable Sections (In): 1 if present, 0 if absent
  5. Readability (R): Using the Flesch Score (grading the readability of a document) ranging from 0 to 100 (using the Rudolf Flesch formula); higher score is better readability

Finally, since the number of promises in each manifesto significantly, we utilised the ‘promises as a percent of total’ as the criteria for analyzing trends. The final results are tabulated in the annexure.

It must be noted here that the factors above are, for the most part, not mutually exclusive, i.e., the presence of one does not indicate the absence of another. Promises have varying degrees of presence or absence of the factors mentioned above, each with a distinct combination. For example: one promise could be D1, P1, V1, In1; while the other could be D0, P0, V0, In0. This is a promise-wise analysis.


The BJP and INC manifestos emphasize development including the human, social or physical development of the population. Interestingly, between 2014 and 2019, while the BJP largely maintained its emphasis on developmental promises, the INC observed a significant dip of 7%, showcasing a shift in strategy to appeal to voter sentiment rather than their vision for growth (Figure 1). However, without  significant budgetary allocation within the document, the feasibility of implementing such tall developmental commitments by either party seems shaky.

Populism here is analysed promise-by-promise, based on the definition and categorisation provided in the methodology. Most of the time, promises that were not developmental in nature tended to be populistic. However, there were exceptions to this case. In the 2014 elections, the BJP exhibited a notably higher populist tendency, almost 2.5 times that of the INC, likely due to its opposition status. There was an observable increase in populist promises in the 2019 manifestos of both parties. However, INC saw a quadruple increment in populist measures from 2014 (Figure 2), reinforcing the notion that opposition parties tend to prioritise populism. 

INC has consistently been inclusive of various vulnerable sections in its manifestos. Inclusivity is measured as the number of promises consisting of vulnerable sections (defined under the section on methodology) as the target group or direct beneficiary of that promise. While BJP was less inclusive in 2014 (20%), by 2019 

(26.8%), it surpassed INC by expanding its number of inclusive promises by 34%, likely due to the ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ approach under party leadership. Contrariwise, inclusivity in the INC manifesto declined by almost 30% during the same period, declining from 36.2% in 2014 to 26.8% in 2019. (Figure 3)

The BJP has been consistently vaguer in its promises in both 2014 and 2019 than the INC, with around 38% of promises vague in language. A concerning observation was the drastic rise in the INC’s vagueness, which more than doubled in percentage from 2014 to reach 28% in 2019, indicating a potential trend towards offering fewer specific commitments or policies. This could be linked to rising populism in general. The vagueness may also be a strategy to avoid upsetting certain segments of voters, linking to populism again. Alternatively, it could be indicative of poor research and policy incoherence undermining the legitimacy and effectiveness of the manifestos in the eyes of the voter. (Figure 4)

The BJP and INC Manifestos have notable similarities in their socialistic approach. The INC manifesto lacks differentiating factors from the BJP that demonstrate its unique strategic and ideological vision for the country. Seemingly, INC has mimicked the BJP’s methodology of drafting manifestos before 2019. The only differentiating factor between the two is INC’s focus on religious minorities. Other than that, INC’s manifesto lacks a clear strategic vision, which is an ill-conceived move, especially when it aims to revive itself from the baggage of its legacy.

Neither document is consumable. They range from 28 to 32 on the Flesch scale which indicates the need for at least a graduate-level education for comprehension. As an example, this piece rates 29 on the same scale. This puts up a tall barrier against entry for young or non-graduate individuals who would like to read and talk about the document. Exclusivity seems to be the norm.

Another observation is the lack of novelty. The BJP manifesto especially focuses on continuity promises, i.e., promises that emphasize the accomplishments of the party on existing schemes and policies rather than creating innovative and transformative promises that inspire a voter. This is problematic because manifestos have to inspire voters and their imaginations to persuade them to support a party’s vision of what India should look like in a span of five years. A manifesto must act like a vision document, a blueprint for the future. Both the BJP in 2014 and the INC in 2019 had more than double the number of promises the ruling dispensation made. While the government can boast about its achievements, the opposition has nothing to show for the last 5 years. They point out mistakes of the current tenure and, in many cases, make promises that solely focus on undoing the work of the party in power, thus limiting innovation and lengthening documents.


First, both parties, particularly the BJP, should enhance the specificity of their manifestos. Over one-third of the BJP’s promises in both 2014 and 2019 solely outlined the “what” without addressing the “why,” “how,” “for how much,” “for Whom,” or “by when.” At least one other aspect alongside the “What”, preferably the “How”, is essential for clarity. If not, the commitments may lack specificity, leaving them open to interpretation and ambiguity and making accountability a difficult task.

Second, both the BJP and INC ought to provide estimated costs for implementing each promise, and targeted beneficiaries and sources of funds in their manifesto commitments. This will ensure that the manifestos do not overburden the public exchequer. Parties should establish mechanisms for monitoring and evaluating policy implementation to foster trust with the electorate in real-time. Dashboards could be utilized for the same, setting a grand example of good governance. To quote Aaron Wildavsky, “If you cannot budget, how can you govern?”

Third, the Indian rural intelligentsia is one of the most sophisticated institutions anywhere in the world. The parties must utilize this medium and include them in the manifesto-making process by holding discussions over a wide period. This will ensure representation of over 60% of the population but also include provisions for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable in society. Varun Gandhi’s ‘A Rural Manifesto — Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages’ comes to mind. The parties must encourage more MPs from rural constituencies to undertake similar measures, identify issues specific to their people, prepare a report, and utilize that information for a healthier and more inclusive manifesto.

Fourth, both parties must improve readability. Often, these manifestos are released as booklets, which are lengthy and extremely wordy. The INC, in particular, increased the length of its manifesto by 30% between 2014 and 2019 to reach a whopping 17,000 words (similar to a novella), while the BJP used around 11,000 words by 2019 (similar to a college dissertation). A citizen neither has the expertise nor the time to go through such a document. Thus, there is an immense need for innovation here. Parties could, for example, start by ensuring everyone is aware of the release of a manifesto by collaborating with the Election Commission and sending SMS to all concerned citizens. Additionally, parties can make purely digital and interactive manifestos targeting youth.

Fifth, both parties ought to engage in constructive dialogue. The accessibility of these documents, despite elaborate launch events and dedicated efforts, fails to stimulate vibrant discussion among the populace. Neither CSOs, NGOs, nor media forums extensively engage with manifestos beyond their initial release. Voters must approach these manifestos with a clear and unbiased mindset, prioritizing a factual analysis over emotional reactions. For this, events at the grassroots level could be organized to encourage dialogue and discussion about the same.

Sixth, on an institutional scale, there is an urgent need to define what freebies or populist measures imply. Populist measures can sway the outcome of an election and act as impediments to the free and fair democratic processes. However, there is no consensus among political stakeholders about the definition yet. The onus for this lies, in all probability, with the Election Commission. Though the Election Commission has some power in this regard, backed by the Supreme Court directives under S Subramaniam Balaji v Government of Tamil Nadu, these powers remain vague and relatively unexplored in the context of defining freebies or populist measures. 


In the lead-up to the 18th Lok Sabha elections, the voter needs to prioritize the party’s strategic vision for the country over emotional considerations. By leveraging the factors written above, a voter can make an informed decision. The voter should especially scrutinize tall and vague promises, wherein parties can potentially manipulate language to align with the voter’s wishes without being compelled to fulfil those promises. 

We predict that the BJP Manifesto will double down on continuity promises that focus especially on developmental projects in alignment with the Vision India@2047 Document. INC, being in the opposition, will likely have some populist promises to appeal to voters, influencing the BJP to include the same to not risk losing potential votes. Either way, the populist measures are bound to increase. Recognizing the saturation of current schemes, we predict both parties shall showcase innovative promises especially to influence middle-class, educated voters. We also project that both manifestos will double down on inclusive themes aligning with their current political campaigns of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas and Sabka Prayas and ‘Mohabbat ki Dukaan’

The 2024 elections will offer the voters an opportunity to not only choose the ideology they believe in but also shape the trajectory of India, and it is not a job that should be taken lightly. A voter must rise above the simplistic idea of the battle of good vs. bad and instead focus on better policies and better governance. 


Table: Comparison of Manifestos by the BJP and INC
Types of PromisesINC 2014 (%)BJP 2014 (%)INC 2019 (%)BJP 2019 (%)
Readability (Flesch Score 0-100)29313232
Note: All data are derived from primary research based on Political Manifestos of BJP and INC in the years 2014 and 2019
Note: The variables in the table are mutually exclusive with sparse overlap. Each percentage provided in the table is to be interpreted by the reader individually, as the numbers represent specific focuses within each manifesto. In other words, the sum total of all promises for a year does not have to add up to 100%.