What Indian political parties can learn from Leslie Knope

Leslie Knope is the protagonist of the satirical comedy show Parks and Recreation. Initially, a mid-level bureaucrat in the Parks department of the Pawnee government, Leslie realises her childhood dream of running for office when she wins the city council elections, and becomes a member of the council. While campaigning for the elections, Leslie displays a refreshing amount of clarity in her policy stances.

On the other hand, political parties in India have published election manifestos which are quite vague. In an op-ed for Mint, Prakhar Misra and Kadambari Shah write:

The 2014 INC manifesto mentions promotion of a “more flexible labour policy” and “greater integration with [the] global economy”, but it doesn’t hint at what these lofty goals will entail. Likewise, the BJP manifesto stated that “administrative reforms will be a priority for the government” and will be “implemented through an appropriate body under the [Prime Minister’s Office] PMO”, but it doesn’t tell us what these administrative reforms encompass.

They also argue that when Indian political parties talk about policies, there isn’t as much focus on the ‘how’ as on the ‘what’:

…promises have been made for “creation of 1 crore jobs” and “setting up efficient waste and water management systems”. There should be more details on where the money for these initiatives will come from, how the necessary permissions will be taken, and who will be involved in translating these projects into reality.

In the first episode of season three of Parks and Recreation, Leslie gets scouted by some people who think she is a potential candidate to run for local elections. Leslie is ecstatic to accept the offer and she responds “Did you get a chance to look at my sample position papers? How do you feel about my stance on Egyptian debt relief?” Here we see that a dedicated Leslie has stance on a highly specific issue, notwithstanding the lack of relevance of that issue for a local election. Next, in season four, episode 12, Leslie creates an ad for her election campaign which lists out all the things she is “pro”. The fictional town of Pawnee suffers from a raccoon infestation but Leslie doesn’t just say that she will “solve the raccoons problem”. Her campaign ad specifically lists how she intends to solve the problem:  “One park ranger for every 10,000 raccoons” and “Enact RRP- Raccoon Relocation Policy”. Further, to improve public safety, there is “One police officer for every five citizens”, “New police patrol cars”, and “Funding overtime hours for police”.

While Leslie doesn’t always have the best ideas, she does have a degree of passion which gets translated into clarity in all her ideas. If political parties in India also describe the nuances of their long term goals, that would improve political discourse in the country as suggested by Misra and Shah. Not only would this move help to make political agendas more accessible to the public, there could also potentially emerge a marketplace for ideas which can facilitate:

a. More informed voting: Voters can judge meaningful differences, if any, in policy stances of parties.

b. Better policy analyses: Analysts can pick a particular stance before they are implemented and argue for or against it using evidence from previous experiences and research. This can again feed into more informed voting.

One country which India can learn from is the Netherlands. In the Dutch model, political parties submit their detailed manifestos to the Central Planning Bureau (CPB), an economic research body which analyzes the impact of proposed policies along with their fiscal implications and presents the findings to the public. Perhaps in India, such analyses can be conducted privately by independent economists and experts with access to cutting edge research tools.

General elections are due to be held in India in mid- 2019. Leslie Knope has a lot to teach us.  Dear political parties, it would be great if you can be specific and clear about your policy stances in all your manifestos and speeches.

Please, and thank you. 

Aditya Jahagirdar is a development and public policy professional. He tweets @jahagirdar_adi.

This piece was written with inputs from Jairaj Devadiga

Indian PoliticsParks and recreation