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Before seeking opinion from the public for their manifestos, parties should listen to their own.
As it prepares its manifestos for various assembly elections and the Lok Sabha election next year, the Congress has decided to tap into the wisdom of the crowd, soliciting ideas from the public. Apart from a website where users can make suggestions, there will also be a series of town hall meetings across India, from where interesting ideas can find their way into the manifesto after public consultation. The BJP also has a section on its website where people can send ideas. The underlying boast, of course, is that these parties are vessels for the popular will, that they respond instantly to the specific desires of citizens. At the extreme end is the Aam Aadmi Party, which is preparing 70 different manifestos for each constituency, claiming to derive its platform entirely from what the people want.
This is the political gesture of the moment — Barack Obama has held interactive and chaotic town halls, David Cameron promised a "post-bureaucratic age" that would rely heavily on local participation and crowdsourced ideas. It makes sense for the Congress and BJP to use these methods as a listening device, with no costs — after all, parties are rarely held to their manifestos. But there are inherent limits to this exercise. Apart from the basics of service delivery, there is very little that will please the public as a whole, to be easily incorporated into a manifesto. Politics is about the adjudicating of various, and often competing, interests, not a single abstraction called "the popular will", as parties know all too well. Asking people for suggestions may be a way to engage them, but it remains a shallow ritual in the way the Congress and BJP have gone about it.