Do welfare schemes catch votes?

Governments in power in the four major states that went to polls were running similar schemes, but not all registered a win

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 09 December 2013

Rough calculations show the ruling parties in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh spent close to Rs 35,000 crore on social welfare schemes between 2011 and 2013 (Photo by Aparna Pallavi)

A striking aspect of the four major states that went to polls end of this year is the populist programmes run by the governments in power. The Congress which was in power in Rajasthan and Delhi, and its rival party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), holding power in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, ran comparable programmes which were aimed at electoral benefits.

Back of the envelope calculations for the period 2011-’13 (till November) shows the four states spent close to Rs 35,000 crore on such schemes. This doesn’t include the flagship Central schemes. But then why did voting trends differ in all the states? In Chhattisgarh that is credited with a robust public distribution system and the first law to ensure food security much before the Central legislation, the ruling BJP initially seemed to be losing ground in a tight contest. In Delhi, the first state to implement the Central food security law and the ruling Congress’s large number of populist schemes targeted at the poor and lower middle class voters, the Congress lost badly, to a party that, in fact, is a first timer. In Rajasthan, the Congress government started a series of popular schemes in the last one year, including the very popular free medicine scheme. But it lost to the BJP in a big way. But in Madhya Pradesh, with the same number of popular schemes and an equally popular chief minister, voters chose to retain the ruling government.

Lessons from Brazil

Does this mean welfare programmes yield votes up to a certain stage after which there is diminishing returns from them?  The state elections raise an important question: how do welfare measures help in elections? The general elections are expected in just another four months. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA-II) is all set to face the voters with its long list of welfare measures.
In this context, it will be interesting to look at how such schemes have helped political parties elsewhere in the world.

The case of Brazil is often cited to gauge how welfare measures influence elections. India has programmes and political posturing very similar to that of Brazil. An example is Brazil’s much-studied “Zero Hunger” programme, launched by Luis Inacio Lula da Silva when he became president of the country in 2003. The programme is similar to India’s food security law, mid-day meal scheme and the Integrated Child Development Scheme. Zero Hunger is an umbrella programme that includes many components like school food and extensive conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes. There are many studies that have quantified the electoral benefits of the Zero Hunger programme in Brazil. Lula’s re-election in 2006 is credited to the success of the programme. In January this year, the American Journal of Political Science carried an analysis of cash transfer programmes in Brazil and their impact on the last three elections, during 2002-2010, coinciding with the beginning of the Zero Hunger programme. The analysis of the elections’ results shows that such programmes do result in more votes, but their electoral utility diminishes in the longer run.

The study found that an increase of $100 in yearly per capita coverage of the programme led to as much as a 15 percentage point increase in the vote share in 2002, but the figure fell to 6.5 percentage points in 2010. In fact, Lula’s party got more votes in areas that had relatively more coverage of the programme than in areas with no or negligible coverage. Such has been the programme’s electoral quotient that by the 2010 elections all parties and presidential candidates pledged to expand it. The study says that this is why in the 2010 elections the voters did not vote on the basis of the programme as they were sure about its continuity. “CCTs have influenced the Brazilian elections since before these policies first caught observers’ attention and in periods of poor and good economic performance alike. But more importantly, although CCTs have helped incumbents, there is no evidence as of yet that they can radically reshape the political landscape,” says the analysis.

Time for rethink by UPA

Then, why is it that Chhattisgarh voters’ gave a lukewarm response to BJP that implemented a successful PDS system? Why did voters in Rajasthan reject the Congress? This is the state that experimented with all landmark laws like Right To Information, work and services. Besides, it has popular schemes that almost cover all strata of the society. Anti-incumbency did not touch the ruling BJP in Madhya Pradesh that voted BJP back for a third time. The state runs a few of the successful conditional cash transfer programmes like the Laldli Suraksha Yojana. What differentiates these states?

UPA has enlarged the outreach of its two latest schemes, the Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT) programme  and the food security law, to 70 per cent of the country’s areas. Going by the above analysis, UPA should get some electoral benefits in the short term. The latest state elections should have reflected this. The above analysis also points out that people look for continuity of such entitlements. The ruling party has to ensure that the programmes will survive through political changes. In the case of Brazil, Lula ensured this. First, in 2006, he enacted the Food Security and Nutrition Law. This was fortified in 2010 when right to food was made a fundamental right in Brazil’s constitution. He enacted laws that ensured procurement from local sources for the massive food programme. This helped small farmers who, in turn, voted for him.

Now, as the Congress’s electoral future looks grim, its leaders need to review its development agenda. It is true that in elections development schemes alone don’t decide results. But with parties fighting on the basis of such programmes, they need to look at the lessons from Brazil. Voters are looking for something else.

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