Voters who gave the Congress its worst drubbing did not reject its welfare agenda, but its performance
There are many who interpret the emphatic rejection of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the significant endorsement of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the elections of 2014 as a mandate to end the architecture of rights-based legislation for social and economic welfare constructed during the 10-year UPA regime. Commentators opposed to the regime of social protection see in the electoral outcomes its decisive defeat and celebrate what they describe as the “end of doles".
I do not agree. The voters who have given the Indian National Congress its worst drubbing in elections since it was instituted 129 years ago did not reject its welfare agenda, but its performance. In fact, in states in which rights-based welfare programmes have been implemented creditably—such as Tamil Nadu, Tripura and Odisha, and indeed the BJP-ruled states of Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh—voters have enthusiastically endorsed the incumbent state governments.
Voters were weary and angry with the UPA government because in its second term, the government failed to implement its own programmes with conviction. A diluted National Food Security Bill was passed barely eight months before the end of the government’s term, which indicated no seriousness in actually implementing its provisions. The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 laid minimum standards for all schools including government schools; but this nationwide quantum upgrading of public elementary education becoming a reality entailed a substantial increase in public spending on school education, which was promised but never delivered. Therefore the Act remained unfulfilled aspirations on paper, and even poor parents switched to low-cost private schools in droves because at least these schools opened every morning with a full contingent of teachers who took classes.
Legitimate claims to land ownership under the Forest Rights Act of millions of tribal people were crushed by a hostile administration. Under the flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which is believed to have contributed to the unexpectedly good showing of the UPA in 2009, wages were pegged below minimum wages and routinely paid months late, which led to a sharp decline in person-days in many states. The loan-waiver for farmers in the first innings of the government was never followed up by increased public spending in the countryside in rural infrastructure and rural credit, therefore agriculture sank deeper in its sickness and farmers continued to kill themselves in despair. The Jawahar Rozgar Yojana which for the first time recognized the rights of slum dwellers to be settled in their present locations with in situ upgrading of public services rather than demolition was never implemented; demolitions remained the norm, and slums remained starved of clean water and sanitation.
The government announced direct benefit transfers of wages, pensions and school scholarships to people’s bank accounts, but it never first installed a countrywide architecture of universal financial inclusion which was necessary before it could be implemented. Like many of the government’s promises to India’s mass of poor people, this one too was frustratingly forgotten along the way.
It was a strangely divided schizophrenic government, with one part of its leadership championing a comprehensive regime of social protection and another consistently inimical to it. The result was a government at war with itself, one which diluted and often actively subverted its own declared key policies. The end result after five years was that the government had no credible story to tell about either its priorities or its performance to its voters. It neither promoted welfare nor markets with conviction. Heaped on this was the ignominy of gigantic corruption scandals, a public sense of policy paralysis and a fatal malfunction of communication, which was interpreted not as diffidence and modesty but as an amalgam of insensitivity and arrogance.
None of this adds up to a decisive rejection—or endorsement—of a regime of welfare and rights, based on state provisioning of public goods such as education, healthcare, social security, food and nutrition, and possibly even shelter. But I am convinced that public expenditure in public education, public health, social security, decent housing and nutrition are not doles but investments in human beings, both as a worthy end in itself and also to derive the best economic outcomes from India’s burgeoning young population. Also that even small amounts of more money in millions of more people’s hands can spur growth from below, by creating new and larger markets.
However, measures such as wage-guarantees and food transfers are not envisaged as solutions to poverty, unemployment and hunger. These must be seen as measures of social protection. Of course I do not laud a future in which poor people will depend on government for unskilled labour employment in perpetuity. Until the economy is able to generate enough labour-intensive jobs in the manufacturing and services sectors, promoting and protecting small-farmers, dependent on rain-fed agriculture, through public wage-guarantee will allow a form of dignified survival.
It is also not my suggestion that the answer to mass hunger is that the state feeds people in perpetuity. Far from it, we need a range of measures to tackle the causes of poverty, and these include stimulating inclusive economic growth, but many other steps as well. But while all of this unfolds, it is economically (and morally) unacceptable for people to have to live with hunger and its consequences, therefore the state must provision food as long—and only as long—as it remains necessary.
Harsh Mander is a former member of the National Advisory Council.