In a span of four days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi questioned twice the practice of politicians making mindless promises of ever profligate schemes in pursuit of votes, and termed it a dangerous trend. He has a point. In Deoghar, Jharkhand, on July 12, he said it was easy to make populist promises and collect votes through “shortcut” methods. In Jalaun, Uttar Pradesh on July 16, he added flourish to the argument by linking populist proclivity to a sweet dish and termed it ‘ revari’ culture. He also advanced his own ‘development as justice’ theory — expressways and power projects, providing gas, toilets and houses in backward areas such as Bundelkhand were all leading to “true social justice”. He was challenging the more commonly understood meaning of social justice in the heartland, which is the expansion of rights defined in terms of caste groups. The Bundelkhand Expressway passes through one of the most underdeveloped regions. What should be the threshold of precariousness at which state interventions such as free food, job guarantees, or cash doles should kick in to provide social security is a debate long overdue. But it should not be forgotten that India is far behind the standards of social security that advanced capitalist democracies guarantee to their citizens.
Perhaps one reason why politicians are showering voters with doles is the disconnect between overall economic growth and job creation. The notion that growth is the panacea for all development challenges is viewed with increasing suspicion by voters, though they may not articulate it in those terms. The clamour for more state intervention for redistribution in democracies must be viewed against the backdrop of mounting evidence of inequality on the one side, and the increasing vulnerability being experienced by classes ranging from white collar workers to farmers on the other. While the situation requires a cool-headed and rigorous inquiry into the development model that the country pursues, many politicians cutting across party lines have resorted to wide-ranging schemes to calm or enthuse voters. Besides the quick political gains that they seek, this also pre-empts any discussion on the existing development paradigm. The Prime Minister would have done better had he opened a debate on the impact of big projects too rather than concluding that they invariably lead to development and social justice. India cannot achieve its development goals in education, health or infrastructure without considerable state support. In what conditions does it become dangerous populism that could ruin the financial stability of the state and when does it function as enabling and empowering welfarism are discussions that are desirable. He may have raised the question rhetorically, but Mr. Modi should now lead the conversation on it, involving Chief Ministers and other actors.