Why the BJP's Reliance on Welfarism Doesn't Guarantee It Will Win in 2024

The rise of BJP under Narendra Modi as a dominant political force is credited to welfarism and not just Hindutva. However, many governments in the past were voted out of power despite introducing a slew of welfare measures. That is why it is premature to write off the Opposition even before the 2024 poll bugle is sounded.

There is no dearth of Doubting Thomases who would question the Opposition’s ability to electorally defeat the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) given that the Narendra Modi government has been running several welfare schemes for the poor. They are of the view that apart from the slogan of Hindutva, it is the free distribution of five kilos of foodgrains, gas cylinders, and direct cash transfer to farmers and other beneficiaries which have facilitated the smooth sailing of the BJP in various elections.

The argument is made in such a manner as if welfare schemes for the weaker section of society never existed before. Direct cash transfer is a relatively new phenomenon because of technological advancement, yet it is a fact that many other schemes existed in the past too. Sometimes, they have helped the ruling parties or alliances politically consolidate their position. Yet at the same time, they lost the elections in spite of properly introducing and implementing better schemes. Governments with even better achievements in the field of development have been voted out of power because of other reasons. At times, even freebies announced at the time of elections did not work.

Comparison with past

As there has been a tendency to compare the present government with Indira Gandhi’s, one must not forget the fact that immediately after imposing the Emergency on June 25, 1975, she not only introduced a slew of welfare schemes but made all-out efforts to ensure that they are implemented properly. They were not just for the weaker sections of the society, but also for others. The excesses committed during the 19 months of Emergency are not excusable. But some of the measures she took – not just economic – had a long-lasting impact. Before that, banks and coal were nationalised in 1969 and 1972 respectively.

Her government successfully handled the Oil Shock following the October 1973 Arab-Israel War. By 1975, the Indian economy started showing some signs of improvement and soaring inflation was somewhat reined in.

A significant aspect of the Emergency which could not obviously be highlighted later was that it helped the authorities tighten administrative loose ends. Corruption, at least at the lower level, was kept under control. Office-goers and teachers were punctual in their duties and – as famously said for her’s and other authoritarian regimes – the trains would run on time.

Indira Gandhi. Credit: Public.Resource.Org/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Her government cracked the whip on hoarders, black marketeers and profiteers who were taking full advantage of the situation created after the global economic crisis of 1973-74. Efforts were made to check large-scale unfair means in examinations though it was the same Congress governments in the states which openly encouraged mass copying to thwart Jaya Prakash Narayan’s exam boycott call in 1974-75.

Her 20-point programme, which among others included poverty eradication and employment generation measures, also had some positive impact. Land reforms were expedited and a tree-plantation campaign was undertaken. Within months, bank loans were provided at low interest to lakhs of cycle and auto-rickshaw wallahs so that they could become owners of their vehicles. Otherwise, most of them had to pay a certain amount of their earning to the owners.

Similarly, loans were announced f0r unemployed youths to launch their own small businesses. Most of these measures were good and were often properly implemented during the Emergency as the government had managed to improve its delivery system in those eventful months.

Welfare measures and electoral setbacks

But all these initiatives did not work at the time of voting on March 16, 1977. Not only did the Congress loses the election but even Indira Gandhi and her son Sanjay Gandhi were humbled in their own parliamentary constituencies. This was simply because she went overboard, muzzled the voice of the common masses, including the press, threw all the opposition leaders into jail, and turned authoritarian. Her government’s draconian family planning campaign and anti-encroachment-cum-beautification drive – however well-intentioned she and the captive press claimed them to be – backfired because of the way they were undertaken.

Besides, her political blunders pushed all the non-Left opposition parties to join hands and merge into one outfit, Janata Party. Thus, she lost the poll which many political pundits never predicted when on January 19, 1977, she announced a general election.

Even her government’s achievements in helping the Bangladeshis liberate their nation on December 16, 1971 and the May 18, 1974 nuclear explosion by India could not come to rescue her in the March 1977 election. (The last election was held in March 1971).

In the same way, her son Rajiv Gandhi’s very positive move to sign accords in Punjab, Assam, and Mizoram in the initial months, and steps to bring about telecom revolution and computerisation campaign did not work and he was voted out of power by the last week of 1989. The Bofors corruption allegations led to his rout.

Also read: Those Who Write Off the Opposition Must Not Forget the Electoral Surprises of 1977 and 2004

Even Prime minister Narasimha Rao also could not get a second term though immediately after coming to power in June 1991, he undertook economic reforms. Ironically, the upper caste middle class largely voted against Congress and instead threw their lot behind the BJP even though they were essentially the main beneficiaries of Rao’s economic overhaul. Rao even sought to cancel out the impact of Mandalisation through economic reforms.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was voted out of power in 2004 though it undertook several massive infrastructure projects such as Golden Quadrilateral and the East-West and North-South Corridor. The Internet revolution, the India Shining campaign, and the slogan of good governance failed to click.

Manmohan Singh – the real architect of the economic reforms in 1991 and prime steward of a high growth decade as PM – could not lead his party to victory in the 2014 election notwithstanding some significant achievements. In the 10-year period, his government lifted 27 crore Indians out of poverty – a rare feat in itself.

File image of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh. Photo: PTI

His government successfully confronted the 2008 global economic meltdown. Yet neither the Prime Minister Gram Sadak Yojana (rural road scheme) nor the flagship programme, MNREGA, which was widely hailed across the planet, could overcome the incumbency factor. The India Against Corruption campaign of 2011 paved the way for the Congress’s rout in 2014. The saffron party took a timely decision to replace the old and hackneyed horse Lal Krishna Advani with Narendra Modi and scripted an unprecedented win.

In states too, several governments could not last more than two terms though they apparently did good work. Chandrababu Naidu’s Telugu Desam Party lost the 2004 election in Andhra Pradesh though he was considered the poster boy of the corporate houses. President Bill Clinton in March 2000 made it a point to visit Hyderabad which the then CM converted into a veritable Cyberabad.

Diseases plaguing BJP

The above examples only confirm the fact that parties in power at the Centre have suffered humiliating defeat notwithstanding the fact that they undertook several populist measures to attract voters. They were voted out of power because of political blunders they had committed, as well as due to over-confidence and in-fighting. The BJP is now suffering from all these diseases. Almost all those who had lost – from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi to Atal Bihari Vajpayee – were strong PMs but they were humbled by the opposition party/alliance which had no formidable face.

Narendra Modi may at present appear unchallenged, yet the fact is that several equally powerful leaders have suffered defeat because of their own political mistakes. The BJP is fast exhausting its ammunition and has nothing new to offer. Without cannonballs to fire, its tanks and big guns are mere toys. So, as in the past, its so-called welfare measures as well as freebies may not work when 2024 comes around.

Soroor Ahmed is a Patna-based freelance journalist.