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Do The Assembly Election Results Indicate A Shift Towards Welfarism?

In the recent state elections, political parties went all out to woo voters with welfare schemes. The verdicts, however, prove that populist policies sans good governance won’t necessarily bring electoral dividends

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Poll Promise: Beneficiaries after receiving funds under the Social Security Pension Scheme in Jaipur
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Two days prior to the declaration of the recent Assembly election results, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a video interaction with labharthis—the beneficiaries of various welfare schemes. As part of the Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra—launched to reach out to the last-mile beneficiaries—the address was loaded with references to the schemes launched by the central government. Incidentally, it was these beneficiaries who were credited with the BJP getting an overwhelming majority in the 2019 General Elections. The government has tried to woo them in the subsequent elections.

This brings up the question—are these labharthis ‘beneficiaries’ or the ‘rightful claimants’ of government schemes? Since independence, welfare benefits have mostly been perceived as ‘rights’ of the citizens. However, from the 1980s, the discourse started changing. Earlier, what used to be the Left’s domain has now been appropriated by the far-right parties. This change of narrative is seen not just in India, but also across the world.

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In Denmark, for instance, in the 1990s, far-right parties like the Danish People’s Party managed to garner overwhelming support through their well-crafted image as the “true defenders of the Danish welfare state”. This narrative was propagated in different countries across Europe, but it gradually changed. Prior to the 2015 elections, Jimmie Åkesson, the leader of the far-right political party, asked people to choose between ‘mass immigration and welfare’.

Something similar—pitting welfarist initiatives against the presumed ‘threats of outsiders’—was witnessed in the recent Assembly elections. While campaigning in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the BJP kept reminding people that “Pakistan is observing the elections closely”, they left no stone unturned to promote their schemes to woo voters.

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There has been, nonetheless, a shift from Left to Right pertaining to welfare schemes, the concept of the welfare state was propagated by the Left parties and the socialist faction of the Congress. On January 17, 1955, addressing the meeting of the All India Congress Committee, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru said India should thrive to become a welfare state. While pointing out that socialism has always been a part of the Congress’ ideology, he added: “The establishment of a socialist pattern of society had been implicit all along in the party’s objective.”

In the recent elections, the results have indicated a shift towards welfarism. However, it is not uniform across regions.

The political scenario changed with time. During 1990s, three M’s—Mandal-Mandir-Market—though dominated popular politics; in the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the Congress shifted the focus back on welfarism. Through initiatives like MNREGA, the National Food Security Act, and the Right to Information Act, among others, the Congress-Left coalition managed to change the political discourse for a while. However, with the emergence of the BJP in 2014, there came a fresh twist and narratives like nationalism, patriotism and communalism took centre stage.

But the emergence of parties like the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which gained prominence on the back of welfare schemes, made the BJP shift its narrative, and following the 2019 General Elections, PM Modi came up with the new slogan of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas—a moniker for the overall developmental plank.

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In the recently concluded Assembly elections in five states, the results have indicated a shift towards welfarism. However, it is not uniform across regions.

In Madhya Pradesh, the schemes promoted by chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan whereas worked in favour of the BJP, the promises of the Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS) couldn’t cut much ice in Telangana. Analysts feel in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, unlike the Congress, the promises made by the BJP struck a chord with the people. It is thus crucial to analyse the significance of welfare schemes to understand whether Indian politics has again taken a welfarist turn.

Welfare Schemes as Electoral Agenda

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The first to join the band of parties that banked on the developmental plank in the last decade was AAP. Their decision to focus on roti, kapda, makaan in campaigns gave them electoral mileage on their 2013 debut. They launched schemes and initiatives like Mohalla Clinics, free electricity up to 200 units and free water. While they were termed ‘freebies’ and PM Modi criticised it as “revdi culture”, the party continued to focus on welfare schemes in its 2020 Assembly election campaigns.

The other parties, too, joined the fray, but it worked in Kejriwal's favour. AAP won 62 out of 70 seats. After the results, Aditya Nigam, a political analyst and scholar, pointed out that AAP, instead of playing into the pitch set by the BJP, created its own ground through developmental planks. Since then, the politics of welfare in the provincial elections has become a matter of competition.  

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Earlier this year, prior to the Karnataka Assembly elections, the Congress solely banked on regional issues and welfare schemes instead of playing into the larger narratives of Halal, Hijab and the Uniform Civil Code (UCC) peddled by the BJP. In its manifesto, the party announced five guarantees that largely helped the party sweep the southern state by winning 135 of the 224 seats.

In the recent elections as well the party chose to focus on women-centric schemes in Rajasthan. Among other schemes, the party announced the Grah Laxmi Guarantee under which women heads of families would receive an honorarium of Rs 10,000. In a state like Rajasthan where the sex ratio is 928—far below the national average of 940—such schemes should have clicked with the voters, but they certainly didn’t.

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The BJP, on the other hand, announced several women and farmer-centric schemes both in Rajasthan and MP. Under the Lado Protsahan Yojna, the party promised to provide a savings bond of Rs 2 lakh to poor families on the birth of a girl child. In its bid to woo the agricultural workforce—62 per cent of the population—the BJP ann­ounced a higher Minimum Support Price (MSP) for wheat and compensation for farmers whose lands had been acquired by the Gehlot government for developmental projects. The party’s promises, nevertheless, struck a chord with the voters. 

Incidentally, the party shifting its focus on women and farmers—beyond its ‘social engineering’ formula—was evident when PM Modi, while addressing the beneficiaries in the video conference two days before the results, had said: “There are four castes—poor, youth, women and farmers.” Though the party evoked the rhetoric of ‘Ram Mandir’ a few times in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, their major poll promises were centered on welfare schemes.

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In MP, the Congress though promised to increase the monthly stipend to women from Rs 1,250—given by the present government—to Rs 1,500, the women-centric schemes promoted by the present government—like the Ladli Behna Yojana and the Ladli Laxmi Yojana—probably overran their campaign.

The Ladli Behna Yojana worked in favour of the BJP in MP, but the Congress party’s promise of Rs 1,500 per month failled to click.

“The Ladli Behna Yojana worked in favour of the party. A monthly stipend of Rs 1,250 is not a small amount,” says Virendra Singh Rathode, a senior journalist from western MP. So, why did the Congress party’s promise of Rs 1,500 per month fail to click? Rathode feels the party failed to reach out to the people. “The health insurance of Rs 25 lakh could have been a game changer, but the party couldn’t take it to the people,” says Altamas Jalal, a Bhopal-based journalist.

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Praveen Rai, a senior political analyst from the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) feels four major factors—Modi’s charisma, central and state welfare schemes, a well-planned election strategy and focused political communication—contributed to the BJP’s victory in the Hindi heartland. “The incumbent governments in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Telangana rolled out several welfare schemes. But it was not enough to win the elections as the gains made were neutralised by the anti-incumbency sentiments arising out of poor governance and corruption charges,” he says.  

Good for MP, Not for Telangana?

Though the BJP’s efforts to woo the voters through welfare schemes and freebies worked in the Hindi heartland, regional parties like the BRS couldn’t make it work in the southern states. In its manifesto, the BRS rolled out several schemes, inc­luding KCR Bheema that promised to give insurance of Rs 5 lakh to 93 lakh BPL families. Former chief minister KCR also increased the pension amount for the differently-abled, besi­des proposing to provide free rice to all ration card holders under the Telangana Annapurna scheme.

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“While the BRS did announce a number of welfare policies, they were subsistence-based and not aspirational. In Telangana, which has a greater democratic quotient due to the presence of protest politics, the expectations were much higher than transactional welfarism,” says political scientist Ajay Gudavarthy.

There was abject neglect of education and highhandedness in the model of governance in Telangana. The BRS was rejected for this outdated social—read caste—sensibility of patronage, feels Gudavarthy. “Welfare schemes remain important to Indian politics but the nature of welfare has remained transactional rather than that of entitlement or a right,” he adds.

“These days, welfare schemes are not good enough to win elections,” says Satish K Jha, a Delhi-based political scientist. “Anti- incumbency, caste arithmetic and organisational weakness can very easily neutralise the gains made through welfare measures. The defeat of the BRS and the BJP’s win in three states demonstrate this,” he adds.

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Interestingly, some scholars like Nigam feel welfare schemes are being used as a means to put cash in people’s accounts against votes. “This is only a slight variation from people being gifted TV sets, grinders, cycles or laptops prior to elections. MP’s Ladli Behna Yojana is, a cash-for-votes scheme,” he says.

“In Karnataka, the Congress tried infrastructural development, but in other places, it has been doing either cash transfers or using the insurance model for health, which means transferring crores of rupees to insurance companies,” he adds.

However, Gehlot’s Chiranjeevi health insurance scheme, that provides cashless treatment of up to Rs 5 lakh, clearly did not have much impact on voters.

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Thus, welfarist politics sometimes becomes merely a moral otiose, and in other times, it works in favour of certain political parties. “The verdicts are a lesson that populist policies and distribution of largesse by way of free electricity, water and public transport sans good governance will not bring electoral dividends and acquire political capital,” says Rai.

(This appeared in the print as 'A Welfarist Turn?')

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