Welfarism: We’re not just beneficiaries but citizens and voters too

The extension of the free foodgrain scheme covering two-thirds of India’s population for another five years is largely unquestioned.
The extension of the free foodgrain scheme covering two-thirds of India’s population for another five years is largely unquestioned.


  • Election freebies reign and we must examine why. The way out of the implied subject-hood of a ‘mai-baap sarkar’? Downplay the role of the beneficiary and highlight that of the Indian citizen, voter and taxpayer.

This story is possibly apocryphal, but nevertheless worth telling. Just after independence, Jawaharlal Nehru instructed his party workers to go to the masses in the hinterland and spread the good news. That the British had left, and we were a free nation now. The workers heard a common refrain, “Oh, the British have left? Who’s going to rule us now?" This was not the voice of a broken spirit, but of instinctive subjecthood. This had been people’s default status through the ages under various kingdoms and also the British. 

They naturally assumed that new a set of rulers would reign. Hence the early work on strengthening the foundations of our newly born democratic republic in 1947 was to champion the basic idea that the people are supreme. Not elected officials, not Members of Parliament, and not even the Constitution can be above the people. They are the bosses. After 75 years, have we finally internalized this idea? Does it manifest in our public life and governance? 

Also read: Freebies in the electoral fray: Millennial Survey results

A sophisticated analysis of this question would need a careful study of the evolution and maturing of India’s politics and democracy. But there are enough indicators to suggest that we are still closer in status as subjects rather than masters. It is still a “maai-baap sarkar" (a paternal state) that protects and nourishes, and to which people turn to for all their problems. 

The legacy of subjecthood now survives as politics of patronage. The political dialogue is not being conducted with the citizen, but with a beneficiary or “labhaarthi." This framing of the relationship robs people of their agency as voter-citizens and treats the electorate simply as recipients of largesse from the government or state.

Welfarism has been ascendant in India for more than two decades. It has taken the form of provisions such as free foodgrain, free electricity, water connections, a housing subsidy, cooking gas, almost free health insurance, crop insurance and of course cash transfers. Its scope is ever expanding. 

In the current election campaign, welfarism has turned into competitive welfarism. It is as if votes can be bought by whoever offers the bigger package of welfare benefits. Leave aside the issue of whether this constitutes bribery of the voter. But in a subtle way, it undermines a legitimate and mature political discourse between electors and those who seek to be elected.

Also read: ‘Revdi’ or genuine welfare? India gives its verdict

Just two years ago, there was a vigorous debate about freebies, initiated by the Prime Minister himself. Even the Reserve Bank of India weighed in, and the Supreme Court too appointed an expert body to regulate freebies promised in electoral campaigns. But that debate seems to be forgotten. 

In any case, the extension of the free foodgrain scheme covering two-thirds of India’s population for another five years is largely unquestioned. We don’t know about how much is meant for the poor, how much is resold and how much goes to feed cattle. In competition the leading opposition party in its manifesto has promised to double the quantity of entitlement of free grain. 

It is quite likely that the scheme of free food, which started during the pandemic, might have delivered the twin objectives of food security and protection from food inflation (since it was being given in kind and not as cash). But we forget that the current free food scheme began with the National Food Security Act of 2013, which in turn was the result of a long and determined campaign by civil society groups, alarmed by starvation deaths, hunger and malnutrition. 

RBI seemed to be okay with free food, but not free electricity, as it places an extra burden on state government budgets. It can also be argued that providing free or almost free housing and health insurance adds to people’s capabilities and their ability to participate in the economy. 

The distinction between freebies, welfare benefits and subsidies is already blurred, and today’s election promises are solidifying the legitimacy of welfare schemes. We might soon get a universal basic income for every citizen—nay, beneficiary. Forgotten is the crucial issue of why should the state be providing an array of private goods?

Also read: In charts: Story of polls, freebies and politics

Welfare economics is a branch of the discipline that focuses on the well-being of individuals. It aims to evaluate economic policies and outcomes based on their impact on people’s welfare. The fact of rapid expansion and bipartisan acceptance of welfarism is an acknowledgement of the fact that the competitive market economy is not generating the desired outcomes. 

The most glaring aspect of this is India’s ever-widening inequality in wealth and income. Another aspect is the slow pace of job creation and livelihoods. There is also the silent erosion in people’s purchasing power caused by persistent inflation. Hence, for a variety of reasons, increasing welfarism is unquestioned.

What’s missing is an adult dialogue between principals (the people) and their agents (the elected officials). This requires an awareness and acknowledgement of the fact that welfare benefits do not come from some magic bottomless reservoir. They come from the government treasury, which is funded by taxes, both direct and indirect. In essence, all election promises, “guarantees" and increased welfare benefits are necessarily a massive exercise in redistribution. 

It involves transfers from the rich to the poor, from taxpayers to the rest. The larger the overlap between taxpayers and voters, the fairer it will seem. The larger the size of the middle class, the fairer the bargain. India’s move toward an even bigger welfare state is inevitable, but we can make this journey more meaningful by downplaying the role of the beneficiary and highlighting the role of the citizen, the voter and the taxpayer.

Catch all the Business News, Market News, Breaking News Events and Latest News Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates.