The last decade has witnessed a fundamental change in the way democratic politics operates in this country. While political parties have always outcompeted each other in providing sops and schemes to help the common man, particularly the poor, the enactment of several of these schemes into legislative Acts as rights/quasi-rights is a radical move

Over the past 10 years, we have seen the successful enactment of the Right to Information Act, the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, the National Food Security Act, and, of course, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA ).

The provision of basic services by the state is not new; most developing as well as developed countries use various means to ensure that citizens have access to basic services. This has been historically true in India as well, with the central government as well as state governments introducing various schemes from time to time to provide these essential services. The implementation of these schemes has varied from state to state and is usually a function of how good the implementing officials are. More often than not, the benefits of these schemes have largely accrued to the power elite, excluding vulnerable groups from accessing these services. And finally, most such schemes were seen as favours by the government.

It is in this context that the shift in the provision of basic services through legislative means assumes importance.

The rights-based approach has not led to any significant change in the quantum of benefits delivered, but it has allowed citizens to demand these services. They are now a right of the citizens and an obligation of the state. Sure, constitutionally, the provision of at least some of these benefits has been part of the duties of the state as mandated in the directive principles, but their enactment into laws now makes them justiciable. A citizen can’t go to court and claim a directive principle hasn’t been fulfilled by the state; he can definitely approach it if a right promised to him by law is denied.

The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) does deserve credit for changing the nature of the discourse, but it will be unfair to give the sole credit to it. An important contributor to this debate has been the judiciary, which has progressively widened the definition of the “right to life" under Article 21 of the Constitution. An important outcome of the judicial outreach has been the National Food Security Act, which emerged from a long-standing case fought by the Right to Food Campaign. Civil society, which has vociferously campaigned for some of the rights, has played its part too. The National Advisory Council, too, played a crucial part in the enactment of these laws.

A significant reason for the emergence of entitlement-based politics is also the nature of economic growth in the country that has resulted in increasing inequality and marginalization. Instances of crony capitalism, many extensively chronicled, have weakened the belief in free markets even as it has led to demands for making the state accountable to citizens. In fact, the contrast in outcomes on social indicators and economic indicators has opened up the debate on the pattern of economic growth the country has witnessed. The fissures in the social fabric of the country brought in by uneven development have strengthened the demand to protect vulnerable groups, not as largesse of “trickle-down" economics, but as basic rights.

What has also made this into a political issue is the changing nature of politics. The two fundamental changes in the way the politics has changed in the country are the emergence of regional parties and political parties with clearly defined constituencies catering to marginalized and vulnerable groups. In many ways, both have contributed to strengthen the way governments provide basic services to its citizens.

The emergence of regional parties has brought the regional imbalance in development out in the political domain. The demand for smaller states such as Telangana and Vidarbha has regional roots, but is embedded in the injustice of uneven development of particular groups and territories. In many states, regional parties have been at the forefront of introducing innovative ways of providing basic services as well as enacting laws to protect and deliver socio-economic rights. State-level laws as well as innovative and universal provisioning have certainly contributed to the Right to Information Act and the Food Security Act. The second set of political parties have used caste-based deprivations as a cornerstone of their politics. The emergence of parties clearly identified with backward castes as well as Dalits signifies this development.

What has also made a difference is the increased participation of a large number of these groups in the political process, directly or indirectly. This is reflected in the increase in voting percentages across the board and also articulation of some of these demands in the political debate itself. Civil society and the judiciary have certainly acted as a catalyst, but the role of new political groups comprising farmers, workers and caste-based groupings can’t be ignored. The rise in affluence has also meant that the middle class is no longer a minuscule minority, but a vocal and significant constituent in the political debate (perhaps with a far higher share of voice than of vote). Even more important are young people, who are emboldened by the opportunities on hand in a growing economy, but equally insistent that their aspirations be met. No longer are the middle classes and youth satisfied by the largesse of the political parties. The aspirations of these classes are now reflected in demands for individual rights and accountability from the state.

It is here that the politics of entitlement becomes important, not just as legislative rights which can be enforced and justiciable, but as a participative political process. Many of these Acts are not just Acts which define the entitlement of the citizen vis-à-vis the state, but also include in-built measures of transparency and accountability. Social audits, greater participation of local elected representatives in the decision-making process, Lokpal, and information commissioners—all are a reflection of this.

It is this that helps these legislative interventions transcend from being just laws to an institutional response to the large-scale socio-economic deprivations this country has seen (and continues to).

Ironically this has come at a time when the UPA has, through errors of omission or commission, overseen the erosion of the authority and de-legitimization of the same institutional pillars which sought to redefine democracy in a citizen-state relationship.

A more important offshoot of these developments has been redefining of the political process itself. The success of the UPA in 2009 general election owed itself to its successful enactment of several of these legislations. That is also the case in states such as Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, where the provision of basic services such as food have not only become political issues, but yielded political dividends to the parties. While this has not translated into development, especially social development, becoming a political agenda, it does signify a shift in the political narrative which now recognizes addressing these deprivations as part of the mainstream political strategy.

Still, despite a broad political consensus, these are far from being universal rights. The criticism as well as opposition has been both political as well as ideological. Politically, many of the rights and entitlements have been challenged by established power groups such as the bureaucracy reluctant to let go of their authority. Not only have there been violent reactions to the Right to Information Act, but even NREGA and the Right to Education Act have been challenged by farmer groups, and private and minority-run schools—so much so that in some cases this has led to the reversal of some of the provisions of the Acts.

Then there is the ideological opposition, both from the political left, and the political right. While the right is openly critical of many of these entitlements as being market distorting and fiscally irresponsible, the left sees them as a partial response to the widespread misery, but also diversionary in the larger struggle against inequality.

The challenge to entitlement-based politics is never greater than it is now. The cushion of high growth, which allowed governments and political parties to generate revenues for these, may not be available, at least in the short run. Some of these will certainly be under pressure from the fiscal hawks—NREGA and the Food Security Act are prime candidates—for the deterioration of the fiscal situation.

But a larger battle, though, will be the very idea of entitlement-based politics versus the market-based growth model. The outcome of this election, although relevant in the debate, may not provide the final answer to this.

Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.