Home / Opinion / From citizenship rights to being beneficiaries of political largesse

Of the five Indian states that went to the polls, the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh was most remarkable, as it’s the first time after three decades that an incumbent government was voted back with a clear majority. Even though there were reports of voter disenchantment and anti-incumbency, given the government’s track record of handling the covid pandemic and the farmer agitation, the BJP won comfortably on the back of its success in improving law and order and delivery of public services.

Among the various schemes that were seen as crucial was the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which delivered 5kg of foodgrains free to Public Distribution System beneficiaries, the rural housing scheme, LPG scheme and cash transfers to farmers and pension holders. India has a long history of anti-poverty programmes since 1947. These schemes have been popular among political parties, as they are seen to get instant rewards. The success of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, despite the weakening of India’s economy after the 2008 financial crisis, is partly credited to the success of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS) it launched in 2006.

None of this is new and has been used by political parties that rule states and the Centre, but what has changed is the nature of rhetoric as well as the relationship between those who receive these benefits and the state which provides them. Unlike the period up to the 1990s, when these were seen as hand-outs, the first decade of this millennium saw a shift in popular perceptions of these benefits and also their design and implementation. Many of the schemes were no longer seen as the result of state largesse, but began being considered a part of our citizenship rights. Judicial activism and enlargement of the Right to Life to include the right to nutritious food and livelihood meant that basic provisions were not doles, but owed to people. The universalisation of the Mid-Day-Meal (MDM) scheme and Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) were a result of judicial action. The fact that many of these were enacted as laws, including the MGNREGS and National food Security Act (NFSA), gave people the power to demand accountability and legal cover. These were increasingly taken as essential duties of the state.

This is changing now to beneficiaries being reminded of their obligation to the state and ruling party for having provided these basic services. The emergence of a class of voters known as ‘labharthi’ (beneficiaries) has pushed political parties to promise a variety of freebies and cash transfers. This has now turned into a competition, with parties offering cash transfers to various groups, subsidies on electricity and other services, goods like laptops and scooters, and even money for marriage expenses. Of course, the poor and vulnerable are not complaining. The quantum of benefits promised has begun to take over political discourse, but a larger change is the popular belief that all this is the result of a ruling party’s benevolence rather than a part of citizenship rights.

This aspect of public policy borders on populism, with quick and high political dividends. The delinking of benefits from the essential functions of the state has also held back the struggle to legalize these constitutional rights protected by the judiciary and Constitution. Many of these benefits were necessary and did help reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable during the economic slowdown and pandemic. State-level initiatives have also helped strengthen the movement to institutionalize these services. The Maharashtra employment guarantee scheme was the precursor to the MGNREGS. Similarly, schemes for MDM and ICDS started by Tamil Nadu were success stories taken all-India. Even the NFSA owes its expansion and enactment to state-level experiments.

Unlike cash transfers, most of these schemes were able to create institutional structures that were later expanded. But they were designed with an explicit mandate to provide basic rights to people based on an understanding of various constitutional rights. The need of the hour is to take these schemes forward and create institutional frameworks for their sustainability. The success of the PMGKY is also a reminder to make it a part of the NFSA at a time when the poor are suffering from economic hardship and inflationary pressure, and not be an instrument to extend it in a piecemeal manner by six months at a time. It is time we treated this delivery of public goods and services as integral to the process of governance and not only as some political promise to garner votes.

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

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