In Uttar Pradesh, the crux of welfare politics

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath.

Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. | Photo Credit: AP

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is fighting the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections on two main planks: Hindutva and social welfare. These twin pillars of the BJP's political mobilisation are often treated as separate categories, analytically. Hence, the deeper political and ideological crux of BJP's welfare politics has largely been missed.

More than populism

However, a more careful analysis would reveal how the BJP's particular brand of welfare politics is not merely electoral populism. Especially in U.P., the BJP’s welfare regime — centred on Direct Benefit Transfers (DBTs) — has been designed as part of an ideological project that seeks to reshape the political identity of the welfare recipients and neutralise the basis on which a successful political challenge to Hindutva can be mounted.

In an influential work, the political scientist, Kanchan Chandra, had demonstrated the basis of the success of ethnic or caste-based parties, using the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) as a case study. The essence of Professor Chandra’s argument was that voters mainly do not vote for ethnic parties out of deep psychological attachments, but because they expect to receive greater government benefits from their co-ethnic representatives. Since government programmes were/have been marred by enormous bureaucratic discretion, inadequate information and poor transparency, voters found that the most reliable way to access welfare benefits was patronage transactions with their co-ethnic parties. Thus, she characterised India as a “patronage democracy”.

These patron-client relationships have been a central part of U.P.’s politics since the time of the Congress’s dominance, when government benefits were routed through the upper-caste controlled party machine. When backward caste parties — the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BSP — came to helm the State, the groups that were supportive were similarly mobilised through caste-based patronage networks. Caste thus became the most salient political identity, the arbiter of access to the State and hence the basis of political competition.

Direct cash transfers

The welfare regime instituted by the ‘double engine’ government of U.P. seeks to change all that by downgrading, if not eliminating, the role of caste networks in accessing most welfare benefits. And welfare benefits have been reconceptualised, to a large extent, as direct cash transfers. The middlemen have been replaced by a digital regime — the Jan Dhan-Aadhaar Mobile (JAM) triad — establishing a direct connection between the State and the welfare recipients.

At present, the U.P. government is directly passing money to the accounts of people on 36 schemes through direct bank transfer. This not only includes centrally sponsored schemes such as Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman (PM Kisan) Nidhi Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, and Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana (PM-JAY)/Ayushman Bharat, but also various allowances disbursed by the State government. A few months ago, the Yogi Adityanath government disbursed ₹1,100 to parents for purchasing school uniforms. In January, ₹1,000 were reportedly transferred to the accounts of 1.5 crore unorganised workers in the State. Even in tangible asset creation, such as houses and toilets, the Government’s role is limited to transferring money into the account of beneficiaries.

These cash handouts (along with an expanded and digitised provisioning of rations) have been described as having created a new political constituency for the BJP termed as labarthi or 'welfare recipients'. This would be a somewhat inaccurate interpretation. The political identity that the BJP seeks to nurture among these voters is still a Hindu political identity. What welfare provisions in a universal and programmatic manner do is to dilute the political salience of caste identity, clearing the way for a Hindutva discourse for the political transformation of backward castes and Dalits into Hindus. Thus, both welfare politics and Hindutva work in tandem in fashioning a singular political constituency of Hindu voters.

Patronage networks

Of course, none of this is to say that U.P. has reached some post-patronage utopia, let alone a post-caste one. Patronage networks are still well entrenched in the political economy of U.P., helping funnel a range of public goods such as government contracts in rural infrastructure. A study in 2018 of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) by researchers at Princeton University, had revealed that when Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and district collectors shared a surname, a contractor with the same surname was more likely to be awarded a contract.

Still, the displacement of patronage networks from large swathes of welfare delivery is a qualitative change which is shaping the patterns of political mobilisation of the BJP in U.P. in four distinct ways.

First, the party has been weakened at the local level where MLAs and district party functionaries have lost their power as intercessors and mediators in the welfare delivery process. A centralised bureaucratic structure oversees these welfare schemes. The role of the local party machinery is merely to act as a marketing wing for these schemes, which are personally identified with Mr. Adityanath and Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi. Thus, the patron-client relationship at the ground level is dissolved in favour of building up the personas of the twin benevolent rulers at the top, backed by a massive advertising blitz, and under whose names the BJP seeks its votes.

Second, the BJP is less dependent on cultivating a spectrum of backward caste leadership to mobilise backward caste votes, than it was in the previous election when it had inducted a number of such leaders from other parties. Many of these leaders, such as Swami Prasad Maurya and Dharam Singh Saini, have now left the party complaining of having received little substantive power. The party believes it can weather this exodus as it has managed to create its own party base among these communities, fulfilling their material needs/welfare and psychological needs through Hindutva.

Neglect of public goods

Third, the flip side of lavish spending on cash transfers has materialised in an abject neglect of public goods such as education and health. While it is true that the state capacity in these sectors in U.P. was always quite poor, the dramatic collapse of the health-care sector during the second wave of COVID-19 did provide a political narrative to the Opposition. There is also little room left to expand the State sector to ameliorate the unemployment crisis, another hot-button issue of this election.

Fourth, the BJP’s welfare politics is on its weakest ground where the presence of bureaucratic interface and organised interests are unavoidable, such as in the farm sector. Big farmers still organise themselves into unions and get the best deal out of the Government. It is not a coincidence that these patronage networks were then the main targets of the farm reform laws, and it was also these sections that were at the forefront of the farmer protests. When the Prime Minister spoke last week in Parliament, he repeatedly mentioned small farmers, trying to bypass the big and organised farmers in his outreach. These small and marginal farmers are also the core beneficiaries of Narendra Modi’s flagship scheme towards the farming community — an annual ₹6,000 transfer through the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi.

Even as the BJP quite overtly indulges in elaborate caste strategies for electioneering, it maintains that it is the only party above jativad or caste favouritism. It also tries to convince the subaltern castes that the cash transfers they have come to routinely expect are an outcome of the ‘double engine’ government in U.P., and therefore, might come to a stop under a new regime.

The ideological challenge that the BJP’s Hindutva faces in States such as U.P. is to hold down the resurgence of multiple political identities among the electorate. It is an enormous task, and thus social welfare politics has been melded with Hindutva for extra reinforcement. This is the ideological crux of the BJP’s welfare politics, whose effectiveness is being stress tested in the caste cauldron of the Uttar Pradesh elections.

Asim Ali is a political researcher and columnist based in Delhi

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Printable version | Feb 14, 2022 9:53:52 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/uttar-pradesh-politics-elections-and-the-welfare-formula/article65045752.ece