One of the striking factors in the BJP’s electoral win in the just concluded election in five states is the role welfarism played in overcoming anti-incumbency. Ground reports and political analysts have reported and commented on this. The post-poll survey of Lokniti-CSDS and the exit poll of Axis-My India – two very credible organisations in the domain – have also confirmed it.
The Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey said while respondents mentioned unemployment and price rise as the key problems they face, the victory of the BJP in UP, Uttarakhand and Goa (it didn’t cover Manipur) could be explained keeping in mind the beneficiaries of free rations and cash transfers (‘labharthi’). It also said, except Punjab, voters were more satisfied with the Central government – which provided free ration to the poor and cash transfers, than they were with the state governments (also ran by the BJP). The Axis-My India exit poll came to the same conclusion, listing delivery of Central government welfare schemes as one of the particular reasons for the BJP’s successes in four out of five states.
Welfare schemes have always existed in India; its electoral appeal is, however, unprecedented in recent memory and even unthinkable in post-liberalised India. The BJP has demonstrated that it has built up a vote bank of such beneficiaries (‘labharthi’), which Prime Minister Narendra Modi called “Vikas Yoddha” (Development Fighters), apparently to give them dignity, during the UP elections.
The Prime Minister also sought votes in the name of his ‘namak’ (salt). Reminding voters of free ration being given under the Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, he said: “Here it is common discussion among people that we have eaten Modi’s ‘namak’ we wouldn’t betray him”. Although later he reversed his position when the opposition took a dig, it reflects a very conscious decision on his part to sold free ration as a personal favour (Modi’s ‘namak’) and seek vote for it.
This is a rare perversity for a public servant.
Free ration doesn’t come from the Prime Minister’s personal fund or that of his party’s; it is public money. Providing free ration to the poor at a time of crisis is his responsibility as a public servant, rather than charity or benevolence it is made out to. Often enough, the Prime Minister and his colleagues have also claimed credit for supplying subsidised ration to 80 million people after the pandemic hit (separate from the Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana mentioned earlier). The National Food Security Act (NFSA) of 2013 which mandates this (subsidised ration to 75% of rural population and 50% of urban population) pre-existed and his government is merely continuing an existing practice.
In Punjab, the Aam Admi Party’s Delhi model of welfare also played a big role in winning it election. But a distinction needs to be made here. The AAP government provides good and cheap healthcare and education, in addition to subsidized water and electricity and free door-step ration. This the AAP government has done without putting strain on fiscal resources. In fact, the NCT of Delhi turned into a fiscal surplus state in FY18 – as the last Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) report of December 2019 said. The same can’t be said of the Central government.
Dangers of welfarism swinging elections
Be that as it may, welfare measures turning into a potent electoral factor reflect that a large segment of the population is so impoverished and its living condition is so precarious that it is prepared to condone multiple government failures – rising unemployment and poverty, gross mismanagement of the pandemic and inflation etc. – in exchange for 5 kg of free wheat/rice a month (which would end on March 31, 2022). This needs serious attention of policymakers, planners and concerned citizens.
Equally big concern is if a party and government can neutralise their massive governance failures with free ration and small cash transfers, as the just concluded elections show, why would it worry about solving the challenges of unemployment and poverty?
Multiple studies have shown that even before the pandemic hit, unemployment and poverty were growing, even while the GDP growth was robust. Both Periodic Labour Force Survey and Household Consumption Expenditure Survey of 2017-18 first established that. But the Central government has neither acknowledged nor prepared road maps to address these challenges, relying instead on growth to automatically resolve these, even after both problems got worsened due to the two years of pandemic. The CFA’s earlier article, “Central flaw in the budget: Irrational reliance on the trickle-down theory”, showed how high GDP growth is not an answer since these challenges emerged despite it.
Welfarism is not bad per se, but free ration or cash handouts are temporary relief, not solutions to job crisis or growing poverty. The election results have just disincentivised political parties and governments from doing the heavy lifting.
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