18 March 2022 18:05:28 IST

A long-time ‘deskie’, Baskar has spent much of his journalism career on the editorial desk. A keen follower of economic and political matters, he likes to view economic issues from a political economy lens as he believes the economic structure of a society is deeply embedded in its political and social ethos. Apart from writing the PolitEco column for BLoC, Baskar writes book reviews and articles on politics, economics and sports for the BL web edition. Reading and watching films are his other interests, though the choice of books and films are rather eclectic.  A keen follower of sports, especially his beloved Tottenham Hotspur FC, Baskar is an avid long-distance runner.  He hopes to learn music some day!

The changing contours of the welfare state

Despite the Aam Aadmi Party’s remarkable victory in Punjab, there is little doubt that the real winner of the recently held Assembly polls five States is the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP is now a colossus on the national arena with the Opposition in a state of utter disarray. Most of them seem to be ready to concede defeat in the 2024 general elections.

The BJP’s victory in the politically important Uttar Pradesh (it sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha) is impressive and despite the dip in its seats there was a two percentage point rise in its vote share. In a largely bi-polar contest its rival the Samajwadi Party too did well, both in terms of seats and vote share, but it still was not enough to defeat the BJP.

These elections reaffirmed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role as the BJP’s most important vote catcher.

The role of welfare

There was near-unanimous consensus among Editorial and Op-Ed writers on the main reason for BJP’s victory –—“aggressive welfarism”. The direct transfers — both food grains and cash — given to people during the last two years as part of the pandemic relief seemed to have made a huge impact on the ground for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh.

More than the welfare provided, the DBT mode, seemed to have made the delivery of welfare seamless and more effective. The JAM trinity (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) enabled this seamless transfer of welfare measures.

The fact that it was the erstwhile UPA government that started the DBT scheme on a pilot basis in early 2013 seems to be largely forgotten now, but the irony is hard to miss.

This brings us to a more important question — has the whole concept of the welfare state undergone a radical change? The earlier conception of the state being a big player in the economy — holding the “commanding heights” — has changed significantly ever since the 1991 reforms were launched.

When it comes to providing welfare measures or “subsidies” to people, a direct cash transfer is now seen as a more effective way. The earlier model, where the ​state controlled prices through price caps or on occasion even supply of goods through tariff hikes or import controls, was discarded over the last three decades as they were increasingly seen as being “market distorting” and difficult to implement.

Though both the NDA and UPA governments in the past gradually moved to the “cash transfers” model, the Modi government seems to have given this move a massive push.

Hilal Ahmed, professor at the Centre for Policy Research, in a recent article, articulates this position of the Modi government succinctly. He calls this “cash transfers” model of welfarism, a “charitable state”.

Here, he argues, the state deliberately eschews the earlier model of providing public goods (health, education, sanitation) and enters into a transactional relationship with the voter by providing her a one-time (or short-term) cash benefit.

In this context it is hardly surprising that the word “labharthi” (literally meaning beneficiary) has entered the political lexicon and has been attracting so much comment.

The southern experience

But this “transactional” model under a “charitable state” maybe new to the Hindi heartland but it has been practiced practised by the Dravidian parties in Tamil Nadu for at least a decade-and-a-half.

Promising free colour TV, mixers, grinders, laptops, cell phones to the electorate in Tamil Nadu has become routine and both the major Dravidian parties — DMK and AIADMK — have happily indulged in it. But to their credit, they have always delivered on their promises thanks to their well-oiled party machinery with a dedicated set of cadres.

But this “freebie” culture has always divided opinion — with the critics calling it a waste of money (even a form of voter bribery) and the proponents lauding it as an innovative form of welfare delivery. But both these arguments miss a larger point — the retreat of the state from the delivery of public goods.

In December 2015, Chennai and adjoining parts were devastated by floods that led to a tragic loss of lives, livelihoods and property. At that time economist and academician Pulapre Balakrishnan had written a critical article on how in their focus on providing white goods to the electorate, the political parties in Tamil Nadu had ignored investing in crucial water drainage infrastructure which cost the state dearly during the floods.

Now this transactional delivery of welfare may yield political dividends in the short term, but may cost dearly in the long term, given India’s already creaking infrastructure.

Postscript: Uttar Pradesh was a state where the second wave of the pandemic had a devastating impact. The newspapers and TV channels then were full of reports of oxygen shortage and corpses floating in the Ganga. But this issue was largely ignored during the election campaign, even by the Opposition parties.

Now, what does that say about the state of politics in India today?