It’s that time of the year when Santa Claus descends from his north Finland abode on a reindeer-powered sleigh, bearing a sackful of gifts for the hopefuls after prudently assessing who gets what and how much so that no soul is left disgruntled on Christmas Eve. The mythical correlative comes close to explaining the milieu prevailing in the five states voting this month. The ‘horn of plenty’ is overflowing with plentiful populist promises, even as the governments voted to power five years ago on copious pledges are being held accountable for the unfulfilled or partially realised ones, showing the hollowness of a ritualistic enactment in the election season.
Doubtless, the crowning stroke was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement while campaigning in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that the Centre would continue handing out free foodgrains to the targeted beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act, 2013, for the next five years. The declaration was intended to counter the munificence held out by the Congress in its manifestos. The PM’s proclamation was expectedly denounced by the Opposition. While the Congress alleged that the scheme mirrored “the continuing high level of economic distress and growing inequalities”, the Trinamool Congress maintained that the timing and the occasion were meant to “influence the electorate ahead of the elections and defeat the idea of a level playing field”. Ironically, had a Congress dispensation introduced such a scheme, it’s doubtful that it would have called it off midway citing improved economic standards.
However, the Opposition justifiably questioned Modi’s frequent use of the term revdi politics to run down the non-BJP parties when pre-poll promises were unrolled. As long as he was the Gujarat CM, doling out freebies was ruled out. In the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, when the Samajwadi Party was voted in on the back of a slew of avowals that included an unemployment dole and free laptops to students, those close to Modi asked if such sops would not undermine the confidence of young people by creating a ‘parasitic’ order. Now, the parasites are acceptable to the BJP.
Ostensibly inspired by the success of its five mantras in Karnataka, the Congress reprised the incantation in its campaign, notably in Telangana, where it is playing for high stakes as part of a larger game plan to retrieve its southern base. The Congress is up against the ruling Bharat Rashtra Samithi (BRS), which honed populism to a fine political skill to overcome anti-incumbency in 2018. The south has a history of populism in which the prelude to the polls is signified by unrolling expensive freebies such as white goods that are later gifted away.
Other factors such as the creation of Telangana out of Andhra Pradesh, caste equations and personalities will count in the elections, but populism has been a hallmark of the south. Sonia Gandhi took it upon herself to unspool six guarantees at a rally in Telangana’s Tukkuguda, covering the entire social gamut from women, peasantry, the homeless, households, freedom fighters to students and pensioners. There was something substantial, at least notionally, for everyone.
The BRS, riddled with corruption insinuations against its first family and patchy governance, must rely on its foundation of welfare politics to win a third term. Hence, its slew of sops and doles, included 5 kg of fortified (not normal) rice through the public distribution system, a life insurance cover for those below the poverty line with the government paying the premium, enhanced amounts for virtually every section and a raise in the flagship Aarogyasri health insurance scheme. Enough for a measure-for-measure play against the Congress? It’s a tough call.
Populism panned out differently in the states, because objective circumstances shaped its play. In Madhya Pradesh, a traditional BJP stronghold since the Bharatiya Jana Sangh era, Hindutva has always cast a long shadow over electioneering. The BJP trumpeted the completion of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, the Congress’s predicament over its ally DMK’s in-your-face remarks on Sanatan Dharma and the development of religious corridors in MP’s pilgrim centres, while the Congress exhibited its own form of Hindutva, manifest in its CM candidate Kamal Nath’s recall of then PM Rajiv Gandhi’s decision to unlock the gates of the Babri mosque and allow Hindus to worship the Rama idol ensconced in the ‘sanctum sanctorum’.
The spotlight on Hindutva did not preclude the significance of populism in the MP polls. The welfare agendas of the BJP and the Congress are undergirded on gender justice, targeting women. The BJP’s CM, Shivraj Singh Chouhan, unveiled several measures for women, including 35 per cent reservation in government jobs and 50 per cent of teaching positions, not to forget the string of Ladli schemes encompassing women of all age groups. As a counter, the Congress listed a slew of promises for women in its manifesto, which includes Rs 1,500 monthly assistance, LPG cylinders at Rs 500, loans, housing for rural women and free travel on city buses, following the Karnataka template.
The Congress did not lose sight of the changing demography reflected in the aspirations of the young. Its manifesto promised an MP IPL team, an artificial intelligence centre and a dole for the jobless.
Like Telangana, the Congress governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, led by Ashok Gehlot and Bhupesh Baghel, respectively, have had to battle perceptions of anti-incumbency, not necessarily against the CMs but their legislators, corruption and an uneven spread of their welfare programmes. The answer to welfare is a heavier dose of welfare and Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have not fallen short of promising the moon to the voters.
The joust on welfare boils down to finessing the details. In Chhattisgarh, if the Congress vowed to waive farm loans, offer a higher paddy price and free higher education, the BJP wrapped its manifesto under the title of ‘Modi ki guarantee 2023’ and resolved to offer annual financial help to married women and LPG cylinders at Rs 500 each.
The question remains: can manifestos help parties reach the finish line first?
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