Citizenship rights to be recipients of political largesse
Among the five Indian states that went to the polls, the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Uttar Pradesh was the most remarkable, as it was the first time in three decades that an incumbent government was elected with a clear majority. Even though there were reports of voter disenchantment and anti-incumbency, given the government’s track record in handling the covid pandemic and farmer unrest, the BJP won comfortably thanks to its success in improving law and order and the delivery of public services.
Among the various programs deemed crucial were Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), which delivered 5 kg of food grains free of charge to beneficiaries of the public distribution system, the rural housing program, the LPG program and cash transfers to farmers. and pensioners. India has a long history of anti-poverty programs dating back to 1947. These programs have been popular among political parties as they are considered to get instant rewards. The success of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, despite India’s weakening economy after the 2008 financial crisis, is partly attributed to the success of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme (MGNREGS ) which he launched in 2006. .
None of this is new and has not been used by the political parties that run the states and the Center, but what has changed is the nature of the rhetoric as well as the relationship between those who receive these benefits and the state providing them. Unlike the period up to the 1990s when these were considered gifts, the first decade of this millennium saw a change in popular perception of these benefits and their design and implementation. Many projects were no longer seen as the result of state largesse, but began to be seen as part of our citizenship rights. Judicial activism and the expansion of the right to life to include the right to nutritious food and livelihood meant that the basic provisions were not stipends, but owed to people. The universalization of the Mid-Day-Meal (MDM) program and the Integrated Child Development Program (ICDS) was the result of legal action. The fact that many of these have been enacted into law, including the MGNREGS and the National Food Safety Act (NFSA), has empowered people to demand accountability and legal coverage. These were increasingly seen as essential duties of the state.
This is changing and beneficiaries are being reminded of their obligation to the state and the ruling party for providing these basic services. The emergence of a class of voters known as ‘labharthi’ (beneficiaries) has prompted political parties to promise a variety of gifts and cash transfers. This has now turned into a competition, with parties offering cash transfers to various groups, subsidies for electricity and other services, goods like laptops and scooters, and even cash for wedding expenses. Of course, the poor and vulnerable do not complain. The quantum of promised benefits has begun to take over political discourse, but a bigger shift is the popular belief that it’s all the result of the benevolence of a ruling party rather than part of citizenship rights. .
This aspect of public policy borders on populism, with quick and high political dividends. The decoupling of benefits from core state functions has also hampered the struggle to legalize these constitutional rights protected by the judiciary and the Constitution. Many of these benefits were necessary and helped reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable during the economic downturn and the pandemic. State-level initiatives have also contributed to strengthening the movement towards the institutionalization of these services. The Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme was the forerunner of MGNREGS. Similarly, the MDM and ICDS programs launched by Tamil Nadu have been success stories across India. Even the NFSA owes its expansion and enactment to experiences at the state level.
Unlike cash transfers, most of these programs were able to create institutional structures that were then expanded. But they were designed with an explicit mandate to provide basic rights to people based on an understanding of various constitutional rights. The need of the hour is to advance these systems and create institutional frameworks for their sustainability. The success of the PMGKY is also a reminder to make it part of the NFSA at a time when the poor are suffering from economic hardship and inflationary pressures, and not be an instrument to expand it piecemeal for six months at a time. . It is time we treated this provision of public goods and services as an integral part of the governance process and not just as a political promise to garner votes.
Himanshu is a Associate Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Visiting Scholar at Center for Human Sciences, New Delhi
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