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A crowded stage
As polling approaches, the BJP and Congress seek to drive home the stark choice facing the electorate. While the BJP trumpets jobs, growth and infrastructure, the just-released Congress manifesto pledges to deepen the rights-based rewriting of welfare policies it has overseen since 2004. The dividing lines of the Bhagwati and Panagariya versus Dreze and Sen debates of last summer, between “pull up” economics and public investment to reduce social inequalities, rear their head again as the parties sketch apparently competing visions of the state’s role in development.
Yet the trouble for both parties is that India’s multi-level political system complicates any such neat set of contrasts. It also means that both the BJP and the Congress face problems of attribution. How far should Narendra Modi receive the credit for a “Gujarat model” when there are longer historical foundations to the state’s developmental model, and when growth rates rose to unprecedented levels across much of the country under the UPA’s watch? On the other hand, to what extent should the Congress and its allies receive the credit for social welfare programmes when, in an array of opposition-ruled states, governments have played a crucial role in turning around the implementation of Central programmes and have often innovated in their own right?
Competition between political parties, and between the Central and state governments, to claim credit for welfare policies is — on the whole — good for public commitments to welfare. It helps to create virtuous cycles of continuity in commitments across political regimes. The efforts by many state governments to assert their “ownership” of welfare programmes should, in theory, improve their commitment to more effective policy implementation. But shared policy jurisdictions and competing initiatives across levels of government also complicate chains of electoral accountability.
Over the last decade or so of more buoyant revenues, many opposition-ruled state governments have augmented Central programmes and succeeded to an extent in rebranding them as state programmes. In some instances, state-level initiatives have predated and then inspired Central programmes.
Chhattisgarh’s Mitanin programme, introduced under Ajit Jogi’s Congress government, inspired the female community health activist or “ASHA” component of the National Rural Health Mission. Andhra Pradesh’s Aarogyasri health insurance scheme, introduced under the Congress chief minister, Y.S.R. Reddy, was a forerunner of the national health insurance scheme.
In the 1990s, the Central government pushed states to take more responsibility for the public distribution system — a major subsidy programme — by introducing targeting for BPL populations. As the Central government partially withdrew, states were faced with a dilemma. They could enforce politically difficult decisions to exclude current beneficiaries from access to subsidies, or they could continue to subsidise access for continued…