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Opinion: BJP’s Renewed Labharthi Push

On January 22nd, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the Union government’s ambitious plan to provide rooftop solar systems to one crore households. According to PM Modi, the Pradhan Mantri Suryoday Yojana (PMSY) aims to enhance electricity access for beneficiary households while offering them the opportunity to contribute surplus power to the grid, thereby generating additional income for each household.

Just a few weeks earlier, PM Modi paid a visit to the home of Mira Majhi, the 10th crore beneficiary or “labharthi” of the subsidized cooking gas scheme, Ujjwala, and shared a cup of tea with her family.

When considering these two developments together, it becomes evident that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is highlighting the significant success achieved by their social welfare programs over the past decade. Particularly noteworthy is their ability to target the delivery of benefits to the intended recipients, all while cumulatively saving the national exchequer nearly Rs 3 lakh crore by preventing leakages.

Importantly, this empowerment is gradually shifting the discourse on welfare schemes – from one that emphasizes giving fish to one that focuses on teaching people how to fish. This stands in contrast to the social welfare strategy of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which emphasized entitlement over empowerment.

With the general elections just two months away, the NDA clearly intends to leverage the social capital it has accrued through its successful social welfare initiatives.

The X-factor

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Under the Ujjwala scheme, 10 crore households at the base of the economic pyramid now have access to cooking gas. Assuming an average family size of four members, this means that the government’s welfare program has positively impacted 40 crore Indians, particularly women homemakers.

Notably, this newly empowered group has not only integrated into the formal economy but has also become vital stakeholders in the Indian economy, enjoying an improved quality of life.

Likewise, over the past 15 years, the central government has provided banking services to 51 crore people. According to a study published by the Geneva-based Bank for International Settlements (BIS), achieving this milestone would typically take a country 47 years.

Additionally, the government has diligently implemented the Swachh Bharat Mission, ensuring the installation of toilets in every household. According to the Jal Shakti Mission’s dashboard, almost every state, with the exception of Manipur, has achieved over 50% Open Defecation Free status. This represents a remarkable improvement, considering that just over a decade ago, the United Nations used to lament the fact that more than 600 million Indians, a population larger than that of the United States, practiced open defecation.

A common thread connecting all these social welfare programs of the central government is their focus on women. This demographic group is at the forefront of these policy initiatives. This is especially noteworthy given the increasing participation of women voters in recent general elections. In fact, during the 2019 Lok Sabha electione, the female voter turnout marginally exceeded that of males, with 67.18% for women compared to 67.01% for men.

Exit polls conducted by AxisMyIndia during the recent state elections indicate that women voters played a pivotal role, favoring the Congress in Karnataka and the BJP in Madhya Pradesh. They will mostly likely an even bigger role in the upcoming general elections as well. Given the success of these welfare programs, it appears that the odds are in favor of the incumbent NDA.

Pradeep Gupta, CEO of AxisMyIndia, summed it up best in his contribution to the edited volume titled Modi@20. He writes: “While previous governments promised empowerment of women, Modi made it a reality by opening Jandhan accounts that enabled them to receive direct cash transfers. Women could have cash in hand that they could call their own and spend according to their wishes.

Women became the proud owners of their homes under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. They were no longer at the mercy of the men in their house. Their position was elevated significantly in their homes and, by extension, in society. Everything that was in the files and works, became a reality in the very lifetime of these women.”

The Electoral backdrop

A direct outcome of the government’s successful welfare programs is the inclusion of over 50 crore people into the formal economy. This empowerment has significantly increased the number of stakeholders in the Indian economy, marking an unprecedented backdrop as the general election approaches.

On a broader scale, India’s per capita income has risen from approximately $1,200 to about $2,600 over the past decade. However, this growth does not apply uniformly across the population, as the country remains divided between the affluent (10%), those aspiring to better standards of living (10%), and the remaining 80%.

The subtext of this is that the majority of the populace is yet to fully partake in the growth process. However, they are deriving the benefits of growth-a richer exchequer is able to bankroll social welfare spending and targeting is minimising leakages – in realising basics like housing, cooking gas, banking, electricity, drinking water and so on. Unfortunately, lack of skill is limiting further social progress even though aspirations continue to surge.

Not only has the nature of the Indian economy fundamentally changed, its complexity too has grown. It is no longer a binary of haves and have nots. Instead, it is far more nuanced as those inside the economy have grown dramatically.

This shift implies that the competition and trade-offs between the three demographic cohorts – rich, aspirers, and the rest – will become increasingly contentious. For instance, safeguarding farmers’ interests through higher prices can place pressure on the household budgets of consumers.

In such circumstances, effective political leadership will be crucial. This choice of leadership is what India’s voters will make this summer. The incumbent NDA is capitalizing on the gains achieved through its social welfare programs to sway the electoral outcome in its favor.

(Anil Padmanabhan is a journalist who writes on the intersection of politics and economics.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.