Citizen vs labharthi? Interrogating the welfare state
IN July 2022, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set the cat amongst the pigeons while referring to a new ‘revadi culture’ (welfare and subsidy announcements) in India’s electoral politics. He warned young voters to be wary of the ‘dangerous new trend of trying to buy the people by distributing freebies to them.’ On the surface, these remarks were a thinly disguised political attack seeking to delegitimize welfare announcements by political opponents ahead of the crucial Gujarat elections. But beyond the immediate electoral moment, the positioning of the attack and the choice of words used to describe ‘welfare’ harked back to the language deployed by candidate Modi back in 2014.
With slogans like ‘Maximum Government, Minimum Governance’ and the ‘Gujarat model’ (of big business, infrastructure and market reforms), candidate Modi had positioned himself as a centre-right, free-market oriented reformer, in contrast to what commentators of the time called ‘povertarianism’ of the previous regime. Welfare was relegated to the background, mere ‘revadis’ against the promise of the possibility of economic reforms.
But the real world of elections creates its own irresistible logic. Two election losses later by 2017, the centre-right candidate Modi had refashioned himself as the ‘vikas purush’ with welfare schemes at the heart of the BJPs electoral push. Since 2017 a slew of new and repackaged pre-existing welfare schemes were announced with gusto – from cooking gas to housing, health insurance and extended free ration under the Covid relief package – these schemes are closely associated with the prime minister himself. Voter surveys show that the BJP actively draws on these schemes for political legitimacy during election campaigns and access to scheme benefits plays a role in shaping voter choices. The term ‘labharthi’ (beneficiary) has now entered the political lexicon and is regularly deployed as an analytical lens to interpret election outcomes. In fact, if election rhetoric is an indicator, the BJPs ideological frame is best described as right wing, cultural majoritarianism mixed with welfare populism.
Given the centrality of welfare in the BJP’s electoral discourse, it is important to ask if there is a distinct BJP welfare model. If so, how do the two different narratives on welfare – the ‘revadi’ and the ‘labharthi’ – reconcile to shape this model? Crucially, what are its implications for the character of the welfare state, the role it plays in enabling citizen rights and claim making and more broadly the dynamics of citizen-state relations?
First a few important caveats. Any analysis of the contemporary welfare state has to acknowledge critical data gaps. The appropriate starting point for analysing the welfare model is through data on its scale and impact. However, there is no rigorous national-level data that enables comprehensive analysis. Critical statistics like the consumption expenditure survey and the census were last collected and placed in the public domain in 2011-12.
At an aggregate level, data from two rounds of the National Family Health Survey (NHFS 4 – 2015-16 and NFHS 5 – 2019-20) we can discern some trends.1 These data point to an increased pace of access to physical assets provided under the welfare schemes prioritized by the BJP, between the two rounds. For instance, the percentage of house-holds that reported using clean cooking fuel increased from 43.8% in NFHS-4 to 58.6% in NFHS-5. Access to sanitation facilities increased from 48.5% in NFHS-4 to 70.2% in NFHS-5. Women’s access to bank accounts too has improved from 53% in NHFS-4 to 78.6% in NFHS-5.
These achievements are significant. However, it is difficult to compare their effectiveness (scale, reach and outcomes) to the welfare measures of the previous regime because priorities were different. For instance, the United Progressive Alliance prioritized MGNREGA, school infrastructure under the Right to Education and health infrastructure under the National Health Mission and therefore the appropriate comparison would be between the progress of these fronts under the BJP. However, neither scheme has been given significant priority in the current welfare regime. Further, absent rigorous evaluations of scheme outcomes, it is difficult to make any claims in terms of overall welfare outcomes and the impact of these schemes on poverty and wellbeing.
It is important to note that the Public Distribution System (PDS) and the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (PMJDY, the financial inclusion scheme which began as a pilot in 2013 and was scaled up under the BJP government) are perhaps two priority areas that overlap between the two regimes. Here there has undoubtedly been significant progress in terms of scale and reach in recent years. This is especially true of the PDS, which after the passage of the National Food Security Act in 2013 began a slow scale-up and acquired a near-universal character during the Covid crisis.
Given these caveats, this analysis of the contemporary welfare regime, as it has unfolded in the last five years (2017 onward), will focus not on its impact but on the nature of its politics and its underlying vision of state-society relations.
The most visible aspect of the BJP’s welfare is its
emphasis on direct benefits to individuals. Technology has been effectively
deployed to create a governance architecture for
Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) which has been used to drive both cash and inkind transfers to individual households. Cash transfers,
subsidies for housing, health insurance, toilets, and drinking water and free
ration (since the pandemic) are all hallmarks of the BJP’s welfare, visible
both in overall budgetary allocations and implementation priority. Between 2015
and 2020-21, the total number
of individuals receiving DBT (cash and in kind) increased by 46%. Economist Arvind Subramaniam characterizes this approach as ‘new welfarism’. Welfare that prioritizes the subsidized public provisioning of private goods over public goods.2 This is visible in the fact that government expenditure on health and education as a percentage of GDP has stagnated and indeed marginally reduced between 2014-2020.3
From the perspective of electoral politics, this preference for private goods has to be understood through the prism of the emergent mode of political branding and the very unique role that welfare schemes play in shaping this. Under Prime Minister Modi, the BJP has sought to manufacture political power through a carefully crafted, direct connection between the party leadership (the prime minister himself) and the voter. This connection is nurtured through the deification of the leadership by projecting the leader as the sole patron and provider thus enabling the leadership to consolidate power without having to bargain with local leaders and factions.
Welfare schemes that provide private benefits that are visible, and tangible, in other words, new welfarism, allow for this connection to be built. It is common during election campaigns to hear voters directly attribute welfare benefits received to the prime minister himself. Voter surveys by CSDS-Lokniti bear this out. Voter attribution of schemes directly to the prime minister and the central government was far greater in the 2019 general elections than in previous elections where voters often credited state governments’ for the implementation of national schemes.4 The link between welfare schemes associated with the BJP and voter preferences is visible in data emerging from recent state elections. The CSDS-Lokniti surveys in the 2022 Gujarat, for instance, showed a greater likelihood of those receiving benefits in schemes like free ration, the PM-Kisan (cash transfers for small farmers) and housing schemes, voting for the BJP. A similar trend can be discerned from the 2022 Uttar Pradesh elections.
This direct connection and voter attribution are manufactured through a sophisticated communication machinery designed to build and sustain the political brand of the leadership. Studies of the BJP’s electoral and communication machinery have pointed to the party’s near complete control of the media, and deep organizational strength that in turn has enabled the near deification of the leader. What is less understood is the role that welfare schemes play in this mode of political branding.
Welfare designed as private, visible, tangible benefits rather than diffused public goods like roads, schools and health care is far more amenable to direct attribution. Tangible benefits make it easier for party workers to mobilize voters and invoke the prime minister as the provider. Moreover, they are more amenable to implementation through a centralized machinery that can effectively cut out intermediaries (state governments, panchayats, and local political actors). This creates the context for forging a personalized, emotive connect with the voter, with welfare as the means to generate legitimacy. A close look at the deployment of welfare schemes offers glimpses into how this strategy has been crafted.
For one, all flagship schemes old and new have been renamed to introduce the suffix of prime minister, before the name of the scheme. A reminder to the ‘beneficiary’ of welfare schemes that it is the prime minister who is the provider of the scheme. When benefits are delivered, the prime ministers’ photograph is a visible feature. Readers may recall a recent controversy between Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman and leaders of the Telegu Desam Party on a visit to Telangana when she publicly reprimanded a district collector in Telangana for the absence of banners with the prime minister’s photograph on display at the fair price shop. She went on to rebuke him for his failure to acknowledge the financial contribution of the ‘central’ government. Ration, the argument went, is available because of central government largesse, a fact that ought to be made clear to the beneficiary, through the photograph.
This incident is emblematic of the underlying tools through which this personalized politics of welfare is implemented – the photograph is the critical link to establish an emotive connection with the voter. ‘Unka (Modi) photo har jageh hai’ (his photograph is everywhere) said a female voter to my colleagues and I, in eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP) before the March 2022 election. Through the photograph, voters are reminded that he is the leader, the provider, the patron, the saviour. On the ground, party workers are deployed to remind voters of the largesse offered by the leadership with slogans like ‘Modi hai to Mumkin hai’ (all is possible). In UP, we encountered several voters who received reminders from party workers to collect their ‘free ration’, an offering from the leadership. In return, loyalty and trust are demanded of the voter. This is what Neelanjan Sircar has described as the ‘politics of vishwas’.5
It is important to point out that this is not unique to the current political moment, Jayalalithaa and Indira Gandhi before her, perfected this model of politics into an art form. What is distinct about this moment, however, is the coupling of the extraordinary communication machine, facilitated by technology with welfare politics that manufactures this deification and the pan national character. Regional parties, across the country, have adopted similar welfare politics and successfully sought to undercut the BJP. In Bengal, for instance, Mamata Banerjee used a combination of gender-based appeals and welfare delivery to prevent Hindu-Muslim consolidation from becoming a deciding factor in the election. According to CSDS data, more than 50% of lower middle class and poor women supported Mamata’s Trinamool Congress.
Underpinning the BJP’s careful deployment of welfare as an electoral strategy is a larger vision of state-society relations which is shaping a distinct idea of citizenship and the role of welfare within it. It is in this vision that we can identify how the two narratives of ‘revadi’ and ‘labharthi’ are reconciled to forge the distinctive BJP approach to welfare.
From its early days in power, the BJP
actively sought to create a distinct identity for its welfare approach by
seeking to present it as ‘empowerment’ in opposition to what they characterized
as the ‘entitlement’ approach to welfare (the rights approach of the
Congress-led UPA). Although never clearly articulated, glimpses of this vision
can be found in speeches and political rhetoric of the BJP leadership. ‘The
poor need to be empowered… to fight poverty on their strength and free
themselves of poverty’ the prime minister argued in an early speech in 2015 as
sought to distinguish the BJP’s ‘empowerment’ approach to welfare. In these early years co-contributory social insurance schemes (not unlike the welfare structure of the United States) were projected as the founda-tions of empowerment welfare that would serve to ‘enhance the purchasing power of the poor.’
Over time, the social insurance approach gave way to ‘new welfarism’ with a very distinct understanding of citizenship and empowerment. This found expression in a recent interview by Home Minister, Amit Shah, in the run-up to the UP elections. ‘We have provided gas connection, power connections and it is up to them to pay their bills… we have made toilets… it is up to them to maintain them… what we did was to upgrade their lives – this is empowerment.’
Underlying this idea of empowerment is a distinct notion of citizen duty and its relationship with the state’s welfare responsibility. Empowerment is imagined as an interplay between the state’s responsibility to provide better infrastructure and ‘ease of living’, while it is the citizens’ duty to leverage this ‘ease’ and pursue their welfare and collective well-being.6 ‘It is the job of the government to make efforts to provide 24 hours electricity’, the PM said in his Independence Day speech in August 2022, ‘but it is the duty of the citizen to save as many units as he can. It is the responsibility… of the government to supply water to every field, but a voice should come from each of my fields that we will move forward by saving water.’
In this framing of welfare and duty, the
idea of welfare as a moral responsibility of the state to rights-bearing
citizens’ is underplayed.
The citizen-state relationship is constructed as a transactional act rather than one constructed through a set of mutual obligations of rights and duties. I give you ‘x’, and you do ‘y’ is how welfare is articulated, and thus accountability is shifted to from the state to the citizen’s shoulders. Empowerment is not defined as rights and identity assertion, but rather as a set of tangible assets for citizens’ to leverage. Welfare in this framing is about the state providing tools to fight poverty through new welfarism but the fight is an individual one, fought through the logic of markets. In essence this is a fundamentally neoliberal framing of welfare that reconciles well with the free-market oriented, ‘revadi’ worldview articulated by the prime minister.
This reframing of the citizen-state relationship makes possible the recasting of the citizen as a ‘labharthi’ rather than a rights bearing claimant of welfare. In this formulation, the citizen is cast as a passive recipient, a beneficiary of welfare, beholden to the benevolence of the state rather than an active citizen claiming rights. This harks back to the ‘mai baap Sarkar’, of yore but what distinguishes it is that it is seen as a clear transaction between the labharthi and the state for electoral gain. Hilal Ahmed characterizes citizen-state relations in this new frame as the ‘charitable state’ in which welfare is provided not out of political duty but as a transactional act of benevolence in return for votes.7
By stripping welfare of the language of rights the BJP has effectively created a new language of political mobilization. The ‘labharthi Varg’ allows party leaders to transcend the traditional logic of social mobilisation – caste, class, ethnicity – an appeal to the ‘labharthi’. This builds on slogans of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ as a means to effectively shift the grammar of development and empowerment away from identity assertion through a group rights and a language of dignity to empowerment as access to scheme ‘benefits’. Embedded in this is a shift away from the idea of right based welfare to welfare as benevolence of the leader to the loyal voter.
Students of India’s welfare state have routinely characterized the Indian welfare state in the framework of patron-client relationships. These frameworks are invoked to understand the dynamics of rent-extraction, identity based patronage and clientelism as explanations for the historic failures of the Indian state to deliver welfare goods to all citizens.
I would argue that none of
these effectively describes the BJPs welfare model and the shift it under-pins from the citizen to the ‘labharthi’. This is welfare based on loyalty, benevolence and above all the persona of the party leadership. It is best described as ‘patrimonial welfarism’.8 Welfarism that derives its power from the party leadership, while at the same time, leveraging benefits as an instrument to establish the leadership’s moral legitimacy with voters. This is the new welfare state of the 21st century. Its implications on democracy and the nature of citizenship are profound and merit deeper interrogation.
1. National Family Health Survey (2014-15, 2019-21). http://rchiips.org/nfhs/
2. A. Anand, V. Dimple & A. Subramanian, ‘New Welfarism of Modi Govt Represents Distinctive Approach to Redistribution and Inclusion’, The Indian Express, 22 December 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/national-family-health-survey-new-welfarism-of-indias-right-7114104/
3. Government of India, Economic Survey, Ministry of Finance, January 2022, https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/economicsurvey/
4. Rajeshwari Deshpande, Louise Tillin, and K.K. Kailash. ‘The BJP’s Welfare Schemes: Did They Make a Difference in the 2019 Elections?’ Studies in Indian Politics 7(2), November 2019, pp. 219–233.
5. N. Sircar, ‘The Politics of Vishwas: Political Mobilization in the 2019 National Election’, Contemporary South Asia, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1080/09584935.2020.1765988
6. I am grateful to my colleagues Priyadarshini Singh and Mekhala Krishnamurthy for this insight.
7. H. Ahmed, ‘BJP’s Electoral Victories Are a Result of a New Kind of Welfarism’, The Indian Express, 14 March 2022, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/bjps-electoral-victories-are-a-result-of-a-new-kind-of-welfarism-uttar-pradesh-7818327/
8. I owe thanks to sociologist Patrick Heller for this characterization.