There is no disparagement of subsidies in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh because those who attack the social welfare policies of the Congress regard them as examples of good governance by a party of the Right

Three propositions dominate explanations of the Congress party’s rout, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s impressive victory and the Aam Aadmi Party’s stunning success in Delhi in the recent Assembly elections. One, that there is a strong anti-Congress wave in the country owing to pervasive anger with its record in power, especially corruption and rising prices, two, that it is a vote against its approach to governance, an approach that relies heavily on social legislation and centrally sponsored welfare schemes, and three, that the Congress’s secularism has lost its vigour because people have moved on to other issues, namely “development.”

The party’s poor showing in this round of Assembly elections is certainly an indication of a sharp change in the national mood which has turned against it in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary election. While the four States are not representative of the rest of India, yet the results are very largely a verdict against the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. The UPA has been widely punished for rampant corruption, inflation and policy drifts neutralising to a large extent the regime’s previous big achievement of striking a balance between economic growth and social welfare. The strong public sentiment against the Congress and an ensuing anti-Congressism building up across different contexts and States portends its imminent decline and loss of power in Delhi.

Populism vs reforms

The Congress rout has led some analysts to argue that India is entering a new era in which the identity politics and issues of mass deprivation and inequality don’t matter; social welfare policies don’t any longer influence electoral outcomes. The party’s wash out is a warning against an electoral strategy that relies heavily on “populism” and “freebies” — two terms that have increasingly become a staple of the Indian news media. In short, the Congress is paying the price for building an expansive welfare state, rather than pursuing reforms to boost higher growth. They have questioned the relevance of welfare policies particularly in the context of Rajasthan where the Congress suffered huge losses despite an array of welfare schemes.

Imbalances

The wide-ranging critique of welfare policies is puzzling because India has enacted far fewer social policies than one would expect from such a poor, democratic country. India’s social policy expenditures on health and education — both as percentages of national income and as per capita spending have significantly lagged behind those of its more developmentalist neighbours in East and South East Asia and fall well short of the recommended norm of six per cent. With regard to social protection spending in Asia, India ranked in the bottom half of the 35 countries recently surveyed by the Asian Development Bank. So, all this uproar against social welfare programmes seems somewhat misplaced.

Certainly, the Congress under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership has given priority to the social welfare and rights-based approach to development. While the growth model has seen no change during the UPA rule, there was recognition that serious imbalances between growth and distribution needed to be addressed through some redistributive measures. Thus, the government went on to shape a new form of welfare politics through a host of rights-based legislation, the most important being the right to employment, the right to food and the right to education. This has raised the hackles of two powerful forces — the corporate sector and middle classes — who feel that these policies have gone too far, especially with the enactment of the National Food Security Act (NFSA). The public debate over the NFSA highlights this phenomenon. The criticism revolved around the idea that resources are being wasted on populist policies and subsidies, wilfully oblivious to the fact that the elite and middle classes have managed to capture public resources often at the cost of the poor.

For sure, social welfare policies are driven by electoral interests. On balance, the Congress coalition came to power in 2004 largely on the strength of the promise to guarantee work. It retained power five years later by extending and deepening social spending and enacting rights-based legislation. These policies have won the support of the poor and the marginalised that form its core constituency. Of late, the Congress has placed greater emphasis on these policies in the hope of differentiating itself sharply from the BJP. In fact, Mr. Narendra Modi’s rise has led the Congress to further sharpen its identity as a party of the underprivileged. But it has failed to protect the interests of its core constituency, especially with regard to inflation which hurts them the most. Nothing illustrates this more starkly than the irony of the Congress pushing pro-big business policies giving rise to crony capitalism and economic reforms such as FDI in retail, even as the corporate sector and middle classes are unforgiving in their disapproval of the UPA regime.

Noticeably absent from these accounts has been the role of welfare policies in the re-election of BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The electoral effects of welfare measures were obvious in Madhya Pradesh, where Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan sought a renewed mandate on the basis of a series of social welfare schemes and within minutes of the swearing-in as Chief Minister, he launched some more schemes with an eye on the general election. Likewise in Chhattisgarh, Chief Minister Raman Singh banked on the revamped Public Distribution System and food subsidies to win votes. But there is no disparagement of these subsidies and schemes perhaps because those who have led the charge against social welfare policies regard them as examples of good governance by a party of the Right.

Ideological divide

This raises the question why social welfare policies, which include an old-age pension of Rs.500 per month for the poor; free medicines for all and a comprehensive right to treatment scheme; and the Chief Minister’s food security scheme, did not work in favour of the Congress in Rajasthan. None of them seems to have caught the imagination of the people. Some of them were hurriedly pushed with no clarity about whether the implementation of these schemes will reach the intended beneficiaries. Not surprisingly, they failed to make an electoral impact as the overall development work was patchy and their benefits didn’t reach their intended beneficiaries. But the Congress defeat has given an opportunity to the neo-liberals to attack social welfare measures generally. Those opposed to welfare schemes would therefore tend to see the Congress debacle as arising from its welfare schemes, rather than from more obvious causes like inflation which blunted the positive effects of welfare measures, the loss of moral legitimacy on account of unbridled corruption, public alienation due to increasing disconnection from people’s expectations, and the crisis of leadership aggravated by dual power centres and a lack of synergy between the party and government.

On secularism, Mr. Modi’s aggressive campaign has strengthened majoritarian impulses and sharpened the ideological divide over it. The decision to nominate him as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was driven by the desire to tap into the Modi brand of polarising politics with its anti-Muslim tinge. If anything, majoritarian prejudice has been aroused during this election campaign by issues such as the “burqa of secularism,” “love jihad,” status of Article 370 and so on. These issues infuriate and mobilise the core Hindu supporters. They add force to the majoritarian logic of a democratic polity even without the espousal of the Hindutva ideology upfront. Also, it is difficult to deny that concurrent with Mr. Modi’s rise in the BJP there has been a spate of communal violence across north India. There is more than the promise of “development” and “governance” at work here.

As a final point, the Congress has to grapple with the long-term implications of losing so much ground to the BJP in north India. Even though the four States account for only 72 parliamentary seats, they do indicate a trend of public opinion stacking up against the party beyond these States. To regain ground it needs to carry out radical changes in policy, strategy, organisation, and the communication skills of its leadership. It must pursue an agenda that promotes redistribution and safeguards secularism but this can gain traction provided it refurbishes its credentials as the party of the aam aadmi.

(Zoya Hasan is professor of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

More In: Lead | Opinion