8 yrs of NDA 2: Key schemes and ease of delivery topped NDA governance agenda
Unlike previous administrations, welfare delivery was not subsumed in a particular ministry’s functions, it was put front and centre of the PM Narendra Modi’s agenda.
A lasting legacy of eight years of the Narendra Modi government has been in expanding the base of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) beyond its traditional pockets of influence among city dwellers, business communities, and “upper castes”. It is this breadth of support that has made the party the central pole of Indian politics, a position it is likely to enjoy for the foreseeable future. And, second to the enduring popularity of Modi, no single factor has contributed more to the party’s dominance than the government’s singular focus on welfare delivery. It’s a phenomenon that unfolded almost in stealth mode at first – assessments of the link between welfare and electoral politics only started getting explored after the 2019 general elections – but has come to upend grassroots political mobilisation to the extent that it has now spawned a culture of government benefits with strong political branding.
To be sure, welfare schemes or linking politics to government benefits is neither unique to the National Democratic Alliance nor a new phenomenon. States such as Tamil Nadu and Odisha have an impressive and longstanding record of delivering benefits to their citizens – the former even using the bouquet of services to augment its “Dravidian model” of governance – and Indira Gandhi created an anti-poverty brand to vanquish the old guard of the Congress and establish herself in national politics. But for the first time in a generation, and for the first time on a national scale, the efficiency of welfare delivery is being used by a party to aggressively recruit new constituencies (Dalits and other backward classes), co-opt political messages it once stumbled on (Mandal, or the empowerment of lower castes), and forestall criticism of its administrative missteps (economic distress or the handling of the second wave of the pandemic).
How this journey began is contested. Some commentators attribute the government’s pivot to welfare delivery to the blowback it received on the controversial land acquisition bill in 2015, while others say that PM Modi was acutely aware of the need to help the downtrodden, having risen from a humble background himself, but wanted a new architecture of efficient last-mile delivery to end leakage.
To this end, it did three things.
One, unlike previous administrations, welfare delivery was not subsumed in a particular ministry’s functions, it was put front and centre of the PM’s agenda. Targets were publicly announced and Modi invested his considerable political capital in pushing for institutional and behavioural change. Think of his government’s first big scheme, Swachh Bharat Mission, and how for years, Modi remained its biggest ambassador.
Two, the government didn’t entrust traditional channels of largesse delivery for schemes announced by the PM, who was known for his strong dislike of the “mai baap” (overlord) attitude of middlemen and lower-level government officials. Instead, the government focussed on cutting out the middlemen – the petite bourgeoisie, if you will – by leaning on direct benefit transfer and augmenting it with Jan Dhan accounts, another of the government’s early welfare initiatives. The government not only limited leakages to a minimum, but also could now claim the anti-corruption mantle, by cracking down on grassroots graft, the most visible form of corruption that hurts the ordinary man the most.
And three, it created a strong political constituency around welfare delivery by connecting the personal brand of the PM to every toilet installed, house built, LPG cylinder delivered, health insurance premium paid, bank account opened, ration delivered and crop payment credited. This not only fanned the PM’s popularity, but it also helped in forestalling criticism of possible local inefficiency in welfare delivery – beneficiaries were certain that even if ration had run out, or their crop payment was delayed, the PM would get it done. Of course, the BJP’s centralised model of governance made such an architecture possible; it also excised from the system local strongmen (who often belonged to locally powerful castes or communities) who often formed alternative power centres under previous administrations.
This model of new welfarism – as economist Arvind Subramanian calls it – shunned what it saw as old models of entitlement politics, instead of recasting citizens into beneficiaries or labharthis who have a strong connect with the personal brand of the prime minister. Yes, sometimes the toilets wouldn’t have water, the LPG cylinder would be due for a refill or the health insurance card rejected at a hospital, but the moral standing of the PM would ensure that the vishwas (faith) in the government is not eroded.
Welfare delivery is a central prong of the Narendra Modi administration today. It has helped the government weather farm anger (PM Kisan Samman Nidhi), overcome anti-incumbency in some states (Ujjwala and health care) and even re-establish its standing after the grisly events of 2021 (free ration). It has helped the BJP argue that it stands for all sections of the society – even as its political messaging indicates little space for Muslims. And, it has helped the party’s attempts at expanding its base by reaching out to the poorest, creating a new constituency of supporters that are less tied to community and caste allegiances than before, and crafting a new language of political mobilisation that opponents have found hard to counter.
Yet, challenges remain. With growing economic distress, an inevitable rise in aspirations and some opposition leaders now retooling the welfare message for local needs, BJP has its work cut out. It is now focused on providing piped water supply in all homes by 2024, again an indication of how the lack of last-mile government capacity had left India hobbled for decades. Whether water can pay the same political dividends for the BJP will shape the story of the next general elections.