(Electoral) promises to keep

Political parties have released ‘promises’ in the run-up to elections in 5 states; Will voters buy them?

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Friday 27 October 2023
Photo: @narendramodi / X, formerly Twitter

Elections to five state legislative assemblies—Rajasthan, Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram—are underway. What stands out this time is the way in which political parties are soliciting voters. While it is common to offer benefits through manifestos, this time, most of the competing parties have released “promises”.

These promises have replaced the earlier thick manifestos, which also carried parties’ ideologies and principles. A broad review shows the parties in these five states have made 2,000-odd promises. Each of them is specific and quantified.

The promises mostly cover the basic needs of a household that account for maximum expenditure, like energy, education, health, transport, labour and food. As this column has said earlier, parties are promising a sort of thali of basic needs in recent elections. But this time, promises emerge as the singular offering to seek votes. Notwith-standing other influencing factors, like caste and religious polarisation, the trend of offering what is referred to as “freebies” has emerged as a potent strategy in the electoral battle.

Are voters buying these promises? Will they influence electoral outcomes? Will this transactional take on the very basis of a democracy—elections—be the new normal? Social scientists and political analysts have been examining the role of welfare or development doles in electoral politics for a long time. In recent decades, across the world, such specific promises in terms of benefits have emerged as an electoral strategy. From Brazil to the US to India, studies have been conducted to establish the electoral impacts and whether over years this strategy has stopped yielding electoral benefits. In India, the ongoing elections would help gauge whether this works perpetually to influence voters.

Three of the five states that are electing the legislative assembly, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, were also in the news a decade ago. The 2013 elections were the first time populist programmes run by then governments came to electoral focus. The Congress was in power in Rajasthan and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Both parties ran comparable development programmes (most of them have been widened in scope and converted into specific promises in the current election campaigns). During the 2013 elections, both parties also promised further benefits and more welfare programmes that covered all basic needs. But Congress lost while BJP was re-elected in its two states.

When these states went to elections in 2018—all three with BJP in power—both parties dialled up their promise of welfare programmes and competitively quantified specific promises. The result: BJP lost all elections. Chhattisgarh’s famed public distribution programme did not influence voters, neither did the hugely popular conditional cash transfer scheme for women in Madhya Pradesh, Laldli Suraksha Yojana.

So, the question: Do welfare programmes only help get votes until a certain stage, after which the returns diminish? It seems so. Let’s look at Brazil president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva’s earlier regimes (two terms in 2003-10).

His “Zero Hunger” programme is greatly studied to measure the electoral yield of welfare programmes. He launched it in 2003 and it has been established that this programme ensured him two terms. An analysis in the American Journal of Political Science finds that an increase of $100 in yearly per capita coverage of the programme led to as much as 15-percentage -point increase in the vote share in the 2002 elections. But the analysis sees a starkly different trend in 2010: the impact on electoral yield came down to 6.5 percentage points per $100 increase in entitlement.

The programme was so popular that most parties in Brazil had started promising similar ones. Lula lost the elections. Many experts said voters were sure about the continuity of the programme and so voted on other issues, not just on development promises. The elections underway in India may indicate whether this trend will be seen here too.

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