The Prime Minister’s appeal to young people to beware of political parties that bribe them with gifts for votes is also an acknowledgment of this mode of winning elections
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call on young people to be careful of political parties (except his own Bharatiya Janata or BJP party) that bribe them with giveaways for votes is also an acknowledgment of this mode of election victory. .
Modi made the statement during the inauguration of a highway in Uttar Pradesh. The reason is a matter of debate as there is no clear indication of the pretext or context of his speech.
Moreover, in recent elections (including to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly), the BJP and other contesting parties have campaigned primarily around these giveaways.
In all recent campaigns, the Modi government has remained focused on ‘garib kalyan’ or the welfare of the poor, selling every measure of garib kalyan as historic or ‘the greatest’ in the world.
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In May, when the government completed its eighth year in office, Modi spoke in a “Garib Kalyan Sammelan” and listed one after another social protection programs that are certainly considered freebies. But these terms were rarely used by his government before.
During his first term (2014-19), Modi spoke of “transformative” politics. He dismissed the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act as ‘offensive’ to Indian citizens as they waste their lives digging ponds and reservoirs.
“Poverty” and “poor” were two words that barely figured in his usually lengthy speeches. But soon, before every election to a state legislature as well as the 2019 general election, he declared a subsidized liquefied petroleum gas program or cash support program for farmers.
During the pandemic, he announced free food grains and treated the COVID-19 vaccination as a major wellness initiative, calling it the largest “free” vaccination program against the virus in the world. The frenzy was such that the Union government launched a campaign to thank the Prime Minister for these social programs.
In reality, Modi and the BJP are in competition with other parties that promote these welfare promises as electoral tools. Parties are repackaging promises to be different and effectively target voters.
Mainly, they all declare or promise measures that take care of daily needs. Those who deliver reap political dividends. For example, in the last elections in Uttar Pradesh, the ruling BJP returned to power affirming the effective delivery of development promises, mainly free rations and affordable housing.
After Modi’s recent speech, media reported that Union Finance Ministry officials at a meeting of the Goods and Services Tax Council raised concerns about ‘freebies’, making bring down the economy of states, especially those of countries not ruled by the BJP. protests from several states.
So why did the prime minister warn against such handouts, especially when these are mostly basic needs that should be the responsibility of a government?
Populism is genetic to electoral democracy. Modi’s statement could have two imports: he either recognized the freebies as a surefire electoral carrot; or he fears that with most political parties using this carrot, his government may end up with no novelty factor.
It might even be the realization that the highly polarized campaigns the BJP is known to mount during elections might not be as effective against giveaways. Modi may want to deflate this by calling the giveaways a ‘bribe for the youth’ – the biggest electoral bloc – and reframing his promises as part of a ‘transformative’ policy that prepares the next generation by as “proud Indians”.
Either way, the fact that he talks about freebies amid his government’s campaign based on such schemes recognizes the importance of basic needs in the world’s greatest democracy.
This was first published in the August 1-15, 2022 edition of Down to earth
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