People wait in queues to cast their votes at a polling station during the third phase of the 2019 general election in Guwahati, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Anuwar Hazarika

MUMBAI — Even as personal attacks and shrill rhetoric characterized India’s election speeches this poll season, at the ground level in the world’s largest democracy, parties were seen wooing voters with social welfare and security schemes.

Over the last 45 days, India has seen a marathon seven-phase election unfold, targeting over 900 million eligible voters across 543 constituencies. The polls saw a record-high turnout, with over 67% of the voters casting their votes, the results of which will be announced on Thursday, May 23.

It remains to be seen whether voters respond to promises of social welfare programs, rather than political rhetoric.

Promises aplenty

Two weeks before the first of the seven phases kicked off, the Indian National Congress — India’s principal opposition party — unveiled its biggest poll promise: a targeted cash transfer program for 50 million of the country’s poorest families earning below 12,000 Indian rupees ($172) a month. With an assurance to transfer 72,000 rupees to each family annually, INC hoped to garner both confidence and votes.

INC is not alone. This election season has made it clear that social welfare continues to be the underlying political strategy for campaigns run by different political parties, irrespective of their ideology.  

However, the implementation of many of these promises is often incomplete. For instance, while the Indian government has touted its sanitation program, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, or “Clean India Mission”, to be the world’s largest sanitation program and lifted 500 million people out of open defecation, many of these claims have been refuted. 

Yet, parties believe that social welfare strategies are their best bet in consolidating voter bases. From giving land rights to the landless to pension schemes for farmers, to bringing in a right to health care, parties across the ideological spectrum have made numerous promises to voters.

If INC is committing to a minimum support income to 250 million people across the country along with a complete waiver on loans raised by farmers and land redistribution, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not far behind. The party has promised, if it returns to power, a slew of welfare measures — including pension schemes for all small farmers to cash transfers to smaller farmers and the assurance that its flagship schemes for free rural housing and construction of toilets in rural areas will continue.

Other parties have followed suit. The Samajwadi Party, a regional force expected to play a significant role in India’s most populous region — the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh — has tried to lure voters with a new pension scheme, targeting only women, while also promising a community-based financing model for farmers.

“Social welfare has traditionally not been a significant part of the electoral discourse in [Jharkhand] … But this time, we see the Congress ... constantly talking of welfare issues — from ways to stop starvation deaths to promises on better distribution of food grains.”

—  Siraj Dutta, member of the Right to Food campaign

Another regional party in the eastern state of Odisha, Biju Janata Dal, has promised to expand its current scheme of providing free laptops to meritorious students from disadvantaged backgrounds. It has also said it will construct homes for every family and ensure universal health insurance coverage.

Many believe that the social demographics in the world’s largest democracy makes it inevitable for welfare to occupy center-stage in election campaigns. According to 2018 World Bank data, 176 million people, or 13.4% of the country’s population, lives on less than the global poverty line of $1.90 a day — against a global average of 9.9%. Nearly 80% of India’s low-income population continues to live in rural areas, often characterized by poor delivery of amenities and a higher poverty rate.

This is the reason why development economist and activist Jean Drèze believes that welfare policies and promises end up playing an important role in deciding voter behavior in the Indian context.

“I think that Indian voters, and especially poor voters, tend to think to a significant extent in terms of what they can get for themselves from different parties, as opposed to taking a principled view of what parties stand for. Thus, the government's record and the parties' promises in matters of social welfare do carry some weight,” Drèze told Devex.

The current Modi-led government has been pushing for a slew of social welfare schemes in rural areas. Measures have ranged from providing free cooking gas cylinders to low-income households to providing free electricity connections, to making strides in financial inclusion by opening bank accounts for rural families, to giving subsidies for the construction of rural homes.

These schemes have been constantly invoked by Modi and his leaders. In fact, in his first-ever election rally, Modi listed out his government’s welfare schemes, one after the other, setting the tone for this two-month long campaign.

There was a reason behind it. As Drèze predicted, Modi was perhaps hoping that voters would be wooed by his party’s schemes rather than its ideology.

‘No other government thought about the poor’

In the central Indian state of Jharkhand, this seems to be playing out well. 

Jharkhand is India’s sixth poorest state, according to Indian government data, with a per-capita income of $814. Its development indicators are flailing — it has a higher maternal mortality ratio, greater proportion of malnourished children, and lower access to drinking water, as compared to the national Indian average.

According to data maintained by the Right to Food campaign, a national social movement working on issues around food security, the state has seen 19 starvation deaths, the highest in any Indian state since 2015. One district in Jharkhand, Garhwa, has seen three deaths in that period.

Right to Food campaigners blame the Modi-led Indian government for the system glitches, pointing to the increasing use of technology in the distribution system, without adequate safeguards for the people who succumbed to hunger. But at the ground level, in Korta village, where one of these deaths took place, the government does not seem to be receiving the blame.

Many in the village, including family members of the deceased, are hoping to reelect Modi. Rajkumari Devi, whose mother-in-law died of starvation, said that the village would stand behind Modi. “No other government thought about the poor, no prime minister spoke about toilets,” the 40-year-old says, referring to one of Modi’s pet projects, Swachh Bharat — a recurrent feature in his speeches.

Devi also points to the homes down the narrow road that go deeper into the village. “You see these structures? Many of them have been given to us by the government,” referring to other Modi government schemes.

The opposition chimes in

Even as Modi’s incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party has focused on its governance record as well as issues of nationalism, after the recent airstrikes targeting militant bases in Pakistani territory, India’s opposition parties have tried to adopt a two-pronged approach.

They have focused on their own poll promises — the targeted cash transfer scheme being an example. They have also concentrated on developmental inadequacies, highlighting various social and economic problems. A major focus has been on the current job crisis unfolding in India. In February, a leaked government report had revealed that unemployment in India stood at 6.1%, the highest it has been for 45 years. Surveys have shown that the crisis over jobs has been top of voters’ minds.

Sensing a political entry, Congress has assured a “jobs revolution,” by emphasizing job creation by the State in both urban and rural areas. “Our pledge is jobs, jobs, jobs,” Congress’ poll manifesto says.

Similarly, Congress has also proposed to spend up to 6% of India’s gross domestic product on education, up from the current 2.7%.

While welfare-driven poll promises are common in state-level elections in India, many believe the opposition parties’ use of welfare schemes to wrest power from an incumbent is a novel strategy in the general elections.

In Jharkhand, for instance, despite the grim developmental situation, welfare wasn’t high on the political priority. That, now, is changing, according to Siraj Dutta, member of the Right to Food campaign.

“Social welfare has traditionally not been a significant part of the electoral discourse in the state. Elections here have always been fought on issues of identity. But this time, we see the Congress and its allies in the state constantly talking of welfare issues — from ways to stop starvation deaths to promises on better distribution of food grains,” Dutta said.

Boon or bane?

Political analysts believe that welfare is now a competitive exercise.

“Every party is proposing welfare patronage scheme. It is almost a bandwagon that every party is looking to climb on,” said Neelanjan Sircar, an assistant professor at Ashoka University whose research interests revolve around studying Indian elections through data.

Sircar believes that such an exercise is a healthy one, “since it is ensuring that voters are demanding delivery of services and voting on the basis of that.”

However, he exercises caution in the same breath. “In such scenarios of competitive welfarism, voters often don’t want to think beyond their self-interest and whether the choice they make might be the best for the country or not.”

About the author

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    Kunal Purohit

    Kunal Purohit is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, writing on development, governance, gender, right-wing politics and the intersections between them. He has been a journalist for over a decade and is an alumnus of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London.