New votebank on the block: Beneficiaries over rights-holders

Narendra Modi’s stress on governing via welfare schemes is antithetical to a  rights-based approach

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Wednesday 09 March 2022


By the end of the elections to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) legislative assembly, a new caste of voters emerged — the ‘labharthi varg’ (or the beneficiary group). This new group of voters are the beneficiaries of various flagship welfare schemes. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed that the welfare schemes were so impeccably implemented that this varg would vote for them en masse ensuring re-election.

The results of the elections (expected March 10) will tell us how this group voted exactly. That will also be a verdict on the ruling party’s claim over successful implementation of the schemes.

In elections that witnessed religious and caste polarisation, the emergence of welfare schemes as a decisive electoral factor is certainly a piece of enlightening news. The welfare schemes whose beneficiaries constitute the labharthi varg are the Union government’s flagship schemes, ruled by the BJP as well, like the PM Awas Yojana, PM Ujjwala Yojana, Jan Dhan Accounts, PM Kisan Nidhi Yojana, Mudra Loans, PM Jeevan Suraksha Yojana besides the free ration for people under the pandemic relief scheme.

UP has 150 million voters; a quick calculation shows that these schemes have altogether 130 million beneficiaries. If this varg votes together for BJP, the ruling government would be back in power with historic mandate. Even, beneficiaries of a few of the above schemes vote for BJP, the party will still harvest a comfortable electoral benefit.

This strategy of targeting this varg of beneficiary as a block of loyal voters has been a hallmark of the BJP, starting from the last UP assembly elections in 2017. It was later used in the general elections in 2019. In the last UP assembly elections, the PM Ujjwala Yojana was attributed to BJP’s victory, besides other factors.

At the core of this strategy is to create a thali of welfare schemes, each addressing a basic need: a subsidised house, a tap water connection, a toilet, a gas connection, cheap ration, employment guarantee and cash support for agriculture. Together, if one makes a back of envelope calculation for a household, the government transfers close to Rs 3 lakh rupees to a household.

In the last general elections, this varg was much talked about. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s office is known to closely monitor this thali of schemes, and each of them is prefixed with “Prime Minister”.

This marks a change in the approach to welfare. Over a decade India has been legislating various basic needs as a right to be given to people through various schemes, like the law guaranteeing 100 days of employment, the law making access to education as right, and even compensation for land acquired has been termed as a fair right.

This approach makes the whole population as the right holder, with some qualifiers for each scheme like for example to access the guarantee of 100 days work one has to be a rural resident.

But the new varg has made the right holder a beneficiary. This automatically makes one an obliged receiver of a government scheme that takes care of a basic need. This is a giver-receiver matrix of development. But, it has a huge electoral connect. Like in schemes mentioned above the benefits are for individuals thus soliciting an individual loyalty to the “giver”. It also makes a direct connection with each voter.

The former prime minister the late Indira Gandhi was a champion of such an approach to welfare. She gave that “garibi hatao” slogan and backed it with many welfare schemes directly funded by the Union government. She also used each of them as her personal response to people’s needs. The result was that at a point of time India had over 1,000 centrally sponsored schemes. It is said that she nurtured her personal connection with the mass using this approach to welfare schemes.

Modi is following this path, junking the rights approach to development. Pre-fixing all central schemes with “PM” is one way of establishing that direct connection with loyal “receivers” who happen to be voters in a democracy. 

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