The view that a vote in favour of the incumbent party is partly a function of the utility a voter derives in the form of benefit that he or she receives is quite widespread among political leaders and political commentators. It assumes that voters tend to go more by what they have received under the incumbent government rather than what they are likely to get from the promises made by different contenders for power in an election. Thus, vote is more retrospective than prospective. Further, it is assumed that individual benefits a ruling party or alliance bestows on the voter would matter a great deal in a developing nation because the electorate consists of large proportion of voters who are dependent on State benefits for a decent life. Thus, the popularity of a government among the lower classes depends not merely on the growth rates of the economy achieved by a government or how it manages the security situation, but rather on the welfare schemes it implements and how the benefits of these schemes are actually delivered to the needy.
The Indian government, whichever party is in power, implements a host of welfare programmes for the benefit of the poorer and low-income classes. Over the last two decades, governments at the National and State levels have expanded the welfare programmes not just for the targeted individuals identified under a scheme, but to all persons falling in such groups.
Some attribute the victory of the UPA in 2009 to the slew of welfare programmes it implemented during its term in office (2004-2009). Similarly, the popularity of several governments that received a renewed mandate in recent decades is largely attributed to the welfare programmes implemented by the incumbent parties. The trend of re-electing the incumbents at the State level is explained by the increased capacity of state governments to expend on welfare schemes which was made possible by the enormous increase of revenues at the State level.
However, such a presupposition does not seem to hold, at least in the 2014 election. Data collected on four major schemes implemented by the Central Government, namely housing, rural employment guarantee, health and pension (old aged, widows, and disabled) schemes, show that the percentage of voters who reported to have received a benefit from a scheme varied from 15 to 21 per cent of the entire electorate. For example, housing scheme has benefited about 15 per cent of the voters. Of the beneficiaries only 24 per cent voted for the Congress party and its allies; 32 per cent had voted for the BJP and its allies. That means about three-fourths of the beneficiaries of this central scheme voted for a party rival to the ruling party or alliance.
It is possible that voters benefited by a central scheme may not be aware that the scheme is implemented by the government in Delhi. They might credit the benefit to the State government, or a local politician or a local bureaucrat regardless of the party in power at the Centre. In fact, during the 2014 election, a large majority of the voters across caste, class, religions, and the rural-urban divide credited their respective State governments for the benefit. Even then, there is no correspondence between the perception as who the benefactor is and the vote preference. The message of multiple advertisements by the Congress claiming ownership of many welfare schemes did not necessarily get through. Even people with higher media exposure were more likely to attribute these welfare schemes to the State rather than Central Government.
We know that the UPA has secured about 23 per cent of the vote, while the NDA’s vote share stood at 38 per cent. We notice that only the rural health and pension schemes have contributed to UPA vote above its national vote proportion. But we also see 36 and 37 per cent of the beneficiaries of the two schemes respectively have voted for the NDA, which are close to the proportion of vote it received at the national level. Thus, we may surmise that the benefits of welfare schemes have only marginal impact on vote decisions. However, we may also add that without these welfare schemes the UPA vote would have gone down further than what it has achieved in this election. Probably, other considerations and perceptions about governance and leadership might have trumped the consideration for individual welfare benefit, making a large proportion of the beneficiaries to prefer the BJP or its allies rather than the UPA.
(K.C. Suri and K.K. Kailash teach political science at the University of Hyderabad)