India awaits the largest electoral exercise in its history with approximately 900 million voters slated to exert their voting rights. While political leaders have already begun traversing the length and breadth of the country to mobilise electoral support, it is crucial to look at what the world’s largest democracy claims to offer to its people in this election. A close look at the Indian election campaign would suggest that rather than discussions on long-term structural reforms that are fundamental for the emancipation of the vast sections of poverty-stricken and deprived people, heightened levels of empty populist rhetoric is being used to woo voters.
The evolution of the demands of the electorate from issues of roti, kapda aur makaan (food, clothing and shelter) to bijli, sadak aur paani (power, roads and water supply) is reflected in India’s governing polity. From unfulfilled platitudes like Indira Gandhi’s Garibi Hatao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s India Shining, to catch-all, feel-good slogans like the United Progressive Alliance’s Congress ka Haath, Aam Aadmi ke Saath to Narendra Modi’s Achhe Din Aane Waale Hai, the Indian political narrative is flooded with such competitive populist slogans of transformational development.
However, in reality, the priorities of the politician often trump the fundamentals of development in India. The compulsions of politics determine calls for unachievable economic policies or half-baked, half-hearted welfarist interventions that may inadvertently fail to serve the interests of the intended constituency. Such politicking lacks any attempt at bringing meaningful sustainable solutions to mitigate problems of poverty, deprivation and unemployment.
India’s tryst with competitive populism
The Indian political dispensation’s tendencies of one-upmanship are not exclusive to one political party. Both national parties, the BJP and the Congress have professed a passionate preference for povertarian politics determining economic policy, albeit in varying styles. Povertarian politics make politicians resort to grand promises of eradicating poverty and uplifting the downtrodden via short-term populist measures. In India, such measures hold significant appeal as strategies like blanket loan waiver or rampant cash transfers yields immediate electoral gains rather than long term structural reforms. Such a populist streak is characteristic of regional parties as well. The primary reason for parties to engage in such politics is the political dividends it yields, especially in a functioning democracy where attracting the attention of the voters is of paramount importance.
The tendencies of populist leadership
Such populist tendencies in political parties in India thrive on two major factors that are often interwoven. First, personality cults are created around leaders whose charisma loom large over the party machinery and direct policy making, often based on their personal predilections. From national leaders like former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of the Congress to Prime Minister Modi of the BJP, to regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, the defining narrative of their political existence is a carefully nurtured image of ‘the messiah of the poor’. Consequently, the centralising tenets of their political portrayal bear a rather demonstrable imprint on the ensuing policies of their governments. These populist leaders claim to behold the interests of a certain group—identified as ‘the people’—while deriding the decadent past performance of its political adversary. Populism in itself becomes nothing but a strategy to obtain and retain power while political parties engage in a race to the bottom, competitively and abrasively showcasing their credentials as saviors of the ‘intended’ people. For instance, Modi’s famous decision to demonetise the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 currency notes in November 2016 as a fight against black money and corruption, while courting the battle as one between the rich against the poor, is a specimen of personalised and whimsical policymaking.
The abundance of populist policies
Secondly, parties thrive on distributing freebies like rampant subsidies, cash, electronic gazettes and other unrealistically extravagant welfare schemes often in the name of the leader as paternalistic grants to oblige the electorates. While setting long-term and meaningful policy-oriented political agenda for electoral campaign is unappealing in closely fought electoral battles, charismatic appeals made by leaders and the distribution of attractive freebies become a convenient alternative. In one of its populist measures to retain its hold over local constituency-level politics, the Banerjee government doled out more than Rs 600 crore from 2011 to 2018 to thousands of clubs in neighborhoods based on the political synopsis that “the clubs play an important role in maintaining harmony in the society. They also play a role in developing sporting infrastructure.” She launched a scheme in 2013 called Yuvashree, wherein a monthly dole of Rs 1500 was provided to the unemployed youth of the state.
In India, leaders have used freebies and sops on a massive scale to enthrall their voters. From J. Jayalalitha’s free laptop and tablet scheme to students of classes 10 and 12 and 50% subsidy on two-wheelers for women in Tamil Nadu, to Naveen Patnaik’s freebie blitzkrieg involving the provision of free blankets and free umbrellas among various other dole-outs to different sections of the society in Odisha, electoral sops have become a commonality beyond governments and across states. In 2013, the Supreme Court, coming down heavily on political parties, stated that “the reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind…shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree.”
Competitive populism in 2019 Lok Sabha polls
The Modi government was elected with a massive mandate in 2014 based on its ideas of aspirational and developmental politics, as personified by the man himself. However, the opposition’s charge of Modi being anti-poor and pro-business struck hard. Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s famous coinage of Suit Boot Ki Sarkar gave the government cold feet. Over the years, the Modi government has been trying to position itself as a pro-poor party, whilst also appearing defensive on charges of its closeness to corporates and industrialists. The politics of imagery compelled the BJP to adopt the Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya Birth Centenary Year Resolution in its National Council meet in 2016. The resolution asserted that “the BJP would celebrate 2016-17 as the “year of the welfare of the downtrodden” across India…The party also resolved to “tread the path shown by Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya and work towards realizing the dream of a developed and just India where even the poorest of the poor would be taken care of”. Senior journalist Radhika Ramaseshan highlighted the move as a shift towards the politics of “povertarianism”.
Moreover, with the defeat in three Hindi heartland states in December 2018, the BJP has further tried to address rising rural distress and the crisis of unemployment, albeit through populist measures. The provision of 10% quota in government jobs and higher education institutions to the economically weaker sections (EWS) in the general category in January 2019 was the first of the populist moves that the Modi government initiated in the poll season. In the interim budget of 2019, the government further upped the populist ante by providing for direct payments to farmers with less than two hectares of land, slated to cost Rs 75,000 crore ($10.56 billion) to the state exchequer. Under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme, the government would provide Rs 6,000 per annum to about to 12 crore small and marginal farmers in three installments, the first of which, of Rs 2,000, was transferred to farmers across the country in the last week of February. Moreover, the interim budget was coupled with sops for the middle class, with the exemption of income tax for incomes upto Rs 5,00,000.
A majority of the BJP’s policy measures have been necessitated by the Congress president’s aggressive populist announcements. Prior to the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in December 2018, Rahul promised farm loan waivers in all states, to be implemented within ten days of the party’s coming to power. Riding on widespread rural distress and with victories in these states, the Congress’ populist extravaganza touched greater shores. Rahul announced that the Congress would provide a sum of Rs 72,000 per annum— or nearly 2% of India’s GDP—to the country’s poorest families, roughly 20% of the population, if voted to power. Terming it an “assault on poverty,” the Gandhi scion seeks to emulate the populist politics of his grandmother, Indira Gandhi.
The significance of the 2019 elections has forced the hand of regional political parties too. The AIADMK in Tamil Nadu has promised a direct cash transfer of Rs 1500 to families below the poverty line and other underprivileged sections of the society under the Amma National Poverty Eradication Initiative in its manifesto. In its manifesto, the Nationalist Congress Party in Maharashtra has spoken in favor of a complete loan waiver to farmers in the state.
The tragedy of populist democracy
According to economist Sanjay G. Reddy, “The electoral benefit of providing immediately visible sops is not equalled by that of interventions that change the structure and dynamics of the economy, for example through distributed public investments in infrastructure and skill development.”
Electoral stakeholders often behold themselves to the twin registers of political expediency and the rule of numbers. In the arena of politics, therefore, bidding promises and selling schemes before ascertaining their social, economic and political benefits and costs has become the hallmark of all political parties. As Ashima Goyal, a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, states, “Politicians can be tempted to appeal to the worst aspects of human nature including narrow group identities…The history of India’s long stagnation is littered with such failed promises and the collateral damage they create.”
Thus, as the 2019 elections are vitiated by a populist tussle in order to appease the electorate, the space of any discussion on meaningful long-term structural development is rapidly shrinking.
Ambar Kumar Ghosh is a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. Avishek Jha is a 2018 Young India Fellow, and is currently a Programme Fellow with Academe India.