A crowded stage

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. 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.

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 a larger population than those officially recognised as BPL by the Central government. Many states chose the latter path, and states with flourishing PDS models today, such as Tamil Nadu (where competing political parties have supported food security measures over time) and BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, have moved towards quasi-universal access, along with efficiency reforms that have both plugged leakages and ensured that vulnerable populations have access to subsidised foodgrains. Thus, when the Congress highlights its new legislation on the right to food — the Food Security Act — it faces genuinely competing claims on this agenda at the state level, from non-Congress governments. The idea that there are clear national divisions along party lines on approaches to welfare and development becomes quite hard to maintain.

In such a multi-level system, the lines of electoral accountability can be opaque. How do voters make sense of this situation? Which level of government or elected representative should they punish or reward for better or worse service delivery? We have become accustomed, in recent years, to thinking of parliamentary election results as voters passing a verdict on state governments. But studies of voting behaviour in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections suggested that the Congress and its allies at the national level were able to garner some electoral benefit from major welfare programmes such as the MGNREGA. Data from the National Election Studies conducted by Lokniti, CSDS, analysed by Pradeep Chhibber, showed that those who voted for the Congress and its allies across states were more likely to say that the Central government mattered in their voting decision than those who voted for the NDA. This suggested, as James Manor argued in a separate study, that the Congress and its allies were able to derive some mileage from their national anti-poverty programmes. However, they still shared the credit with state governments.

Going into the 2014 elections, the Congress seems to be struggling to take credit for its innovative investments in welfare policies under UPA 1 and 2. In his recent interview with PTI, Rahul Gandhi regretted this, saying: “We have done transformatory work. We could always be better in communication.” There is no doubt a question of political communication at stake here. The Congress party has been slow to embrace a new era of media and communications. New entrants have staked a claim to this space, achieving higher visibility and making agile political attacks. The Congress has been timid in making some of its existing major programmes, such as the MGNREGA, a central plank of its election campaign this time round. In the case of the Food Security Act, which was intended to be a significant new electoral platform, much of the public debate has been captured by fiscal hawks. Pushing the bill through as an ordinance in the face of opposition within Parliament, the Congress did not forcefully make the argument for the right to food in the court of public opinion. The party’s manifesto focuses on promising a new generation of rights — including a right to health.

The Congress has certainly entered this election campaign facing a wider anti-incumbency problem, with its authority sapped at the Central level as well as in states such as Andhra Pradesh, where it was previously well established. But there is also a more subtle and complex story at work here. The contradictory ties that bind the Centre and states in relationships of both inter-dependence and competition also make clear electoral mandates extremely complex to establish or disentangle.

If Narendra Modi succeeds in his mission to become prime minister, he will face the same pushes and pulls, despite his carefully cultivated reputation as a leader who personally gets things done. In order to build a coalition, and to implement some of his proclaimed national policy priorities, such as a nationwide goods and services tax, he will need to work with assertive regional parties and chief ministers. Many of these regional leaders will not be content to simply sign up to a “Modi show”. They have their own agendas and will want their share of the credit.

The writer is lecturer in politics at the King’s India Institute, King’s College London
express@expressindia.com