Home / Politics / Policy /  Election results show populist measures may have reached limits

New Delhi: While grand electoral promises to woo voters and populism flew high during the assembly elections, analysts say the results indicate such promises may have already run their limits, with the rising aspirations of a young electorate and increasing political awareness taking centre stage.

The Congress government led by Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, which lost the election to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was banking on its social welfare schemes such as free medicines in government hospitals, pensions and distribution of wheat at Rs2 per kg to win a second term in office. But the Congress suffered its worst defeat against the BJP, winning just 21 seats out of a total 199 in the assembly election, according to the Election Commission.

Ahead of the election, the ruling Congress promised at least 35 kg of wheat free to all families every month and talked about promoting technical and vocational education. In contrast, the BJP did not make any populist promises and instead said it would create 1.5 million jobs in the next five years, indicating the importance of employment for a young and aspiring demography.

Delhi’s Sheila Dikshit government, which was fighting anti-incumbency for the third time in a row after 15 years in office, was the first state to implement the Central government’s newly passed food security law, under which 5 kg of foodgrain is to be provided to around half of the state’s population every month. But Dikshit’s government suffered a crushing defeat, winning only eight out of 70 assembly seats. Dikshit lost to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal by a huge margin.

The AAP, which made a dream debut in Delhi, also made populist promises such as slashing the electricity tariff by almost one third, but its win is seen more as a victory for the clean politics the party stands for.

In Delhi, the BJP touched upon a populist but contentious subject promising to give 12 subsidized domestic gas cylinders per household in a year instead of nine. The Congress, which lost the battle in the capital city, ironically had talked about reform and creation of at least 30,000 jobs in the information technology sector every year.

“Electoral anger against Congress was strongly displayed. AAP showed that people can no longer be bought with dole and freebies," Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, chairman and managing director of pharma company Biocon Ltd. said in a post on the micro-blogging website Twitter.

Poverty alleviation slogans will no more work as an election plank, said Pankaj Bansal, chief executive officer of PeopleStrong, a human resource and recruitment company. “We have to move from slogan to action. One must remember that not populism but growth and jobs resonates with people, especially the middle class."

“Corruption, growth and job are the three real issues for voters. The assembly election results exactly tell you that," Bansal said. “AAP leaders or BJP’s (Narendra) Modi talk about these actions where as others are talking about slogans and populism."

The latest round of data on the 2011 Census showed the country is exhibiting distinct signs of trading up as material living conditions improve for large sections of the population, especially the backward class that formed a large chunk of the electorates in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, indicating the demand for better services from the state governments.

The trend of casualization of the workforce is also becoming more pronounced—up to 29.3% and 35.2% in 2011 for scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs), respectively, from 27% and 31.1% in 2001, which puts more pressure on local governments to provide more stable jobs.

People in rural India saw significant improvement in the quality of houses they live in, according to the housing census data for 2011 released by the Registrar General of India last year, as they did in terms of access to water. They also saw similar improvement in access to banking facilities with at least one in two households having access to a bank as compared with a little less than one in three in the 2001 Census.

The proportion of thatched houses in rural India has declined substantially from 27.7% to 20%, while that of houses with concrete roofs has gone up to 18.3% in 2011 compared with 11% in 2001. Similarly, cement flooring has caught on even in rural areas.

Census data also showed that the SCs and STs, considered the marginalized sections of society, are making rapid strides on social indicators such as literacy, although lack of sufficient opportunities are hindering their economic progress.

According to the primary Census abstract for the total population of SCs and STs, the SCs and STs are also fast closing the literacy gap with the national average and the gender gap within their own communities.

Higher female literacy has led to a narrowing of the gender gap in literacy to 18.7% for SCs and 19.1% for STs, which is comparable to the national average of 16.3%. While in 2001, one in every three women among the STs was literate, by 2011, the proportion had increased to half.

In Chhattisgarh, the Rs2 rice scheme by chief minister Raman Singh worked in the BJP’s favour. The state has a food security law that many activists say is better than the one passed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the Centre. Before the assembly elections, the Congress had promised 35 kg of free rice every month to the poor, while the BJP said it would provide rice at Rs1 a kg to the 4.2 million poor in the state. The Congress in Chhattisgarh also said in its manifesto it would increase scheduled caste reservation from 12% to 16% in the state.

However, populist schemes of the BJP’s Shivraj Singh Chouhan government in Madhya Pradesh seemed to have helped him win a third term in office, defeating Jyotiraditya Scindia, the young chief ministerial candidate of the Congress. Chouhan’s populist schemes like Ladli Laxmi Yojana (monetary assistance to the girl child), Mukhyamantri Cycle Vitaran Yojana (distribution of bicycles to school children), Mukhyamantri Annapurna Yojana (foodgrain at subsidised rates) and Atal Jyoti Abhiyan (24 hours’ power for rural households and 8-hour supply for farmers) seem to have helped him fight anti-incumbency. The BJP also promised home delivery of essential services and low power tariff.

The Congress went a step ahead to promise 3kg of dal at Rs25 per kg and one litre edible oil at Rs20 per litre to each family every month in Chhattisgarh. This was to be in addition to the wheat and rice provided by the Central government as part of its food security scheme.

Although aspirations of the electorate is growing, it is more for short term gains rather than for long term, said Badri Narayan, an Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst. “People love the schemes like Ladli and the Tirth Yatra (pilgrimage) of Chouhan, which give cash directly in the hands of people," he said. “They don’t have much hope that governments would be able to give them jobs. This is unfortunate but true."

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