The astounding electoral success of the Mamata Banerjee-led All India Trinimool Congress party in recently concluded Assembly election in West Bengal has become the cynosure of intense political discussion not only in Bengal but in other parts of the country as well.
Political pundits have engaged in hair-splitting analysis of the probable factors that enabled the mercurial Ms Banerjee to stop the juggernaut of the seemingly invincible BJP. While some analysts postulate that the election result is a severe blow to the alleged divisive politics and communal polarisation followed by the challenger, others contend that the result signals the triumph of Ms Banerjee’s skillfully calibrated brand of welfare populism, suitably pepped up by her image of being a daughter of the soil dedicated to the service of common people.
Though populism is a broad conceptual category referring to a specific political strategy adopted by political leaders across the political spectrum, from Right to Centre and even the Left, it is a euphemism for the political leadership’s practice of distributing subsidies, doles and hand-outs of everyday necessity to different sections of people, particularly the lower strata, with an eye on electoral gain. Differently construed as freebie politics or Dole Politics, India has witnessed quite dominant and successful manifestation of this political and electoral strategy in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, under powerful, charismatic regional satraps like Jayalalithaa and N.T. Rama Rao, later emulated by leaders like Arvind Kejriwal and quite distinctively by Mamata Banerjee.
The Trinamool has, since it came to power in 2011, turbocharged its unique machination of welfare measures in the state. These welfare schemes include food rations at subsidised rates for a large section of the people, the Kanyashree scheme of cash transfers for girl students, a grant once they do get married, an unemployment dole for young citizens, scholarships for Dalits and minorities and many more. Some tangible signs of development like better roads and improved supply of electricity too are considered feathers in the cap of the ruling TMC government. There is no denying that these programmes have created certain goodwill for the ruling party among the rural poor and the urban marginalized sections. Banerjee’s deliberate projection of her welfare populism as a specific means of empowerment of women, as Kanyasree received some international endorsement, further consolidated and galvanized the support of women voters.
Noted economists, while studying the outcome of the welfare schemes of the state government, have pointed out that over the past few years, despite West Bengal’s lack of economic dynamism, its agricultural growth rate as well as the growth rate of consumption expenditure in its rural areas that house 72 per cent of the population, has been higher than the national average and direct cash transfer to rural folk under various schemes might have been the game changer.
However, the lower growth rate of per capita monthly consumption expenditures in urban areas compared to the rest of the country tells a different story. This shows that economic activity in urban areas, primarily manufacturing and services, is performing poorly. Urban centres of West Bengal are becoming poorer relative to other states. The agriculture sector is performing marginally better than all India average and yet, there has been a tremendous amount of outmigration from the rural areas of the state. The landless poor work on construction projects in wealthier states. The absence of growth of employment opportunities has given rise to extortion as an alternative source of income for the unemployed. Allegations of corruption, of ‘cut money’ and selective distribution of benefits along party lines have plagued the implementation of many of the vaunted welfare schemes.
The so called ‘development’ promoted by welfare populism are being increasingly critiqued by economists and policy experts as good politics but bad economics and detrimental for progress of a country in the long run. The inherent weakness of such a development model based on dole is that it does not actually empower people, as what they get is not rights-based. In such non-participatory development models, people become passive recipients and dependent beneficiaries.
Experts of public policy propose that doles can be resorted to in times of disaster, but cannot become a substitute for viable inclusive institutions, industrial progress, agricultural growth, technological advancement, skill development projects, better availability of education and affordable health services, all of which co-mingle to ensure that those capable of participating in productive work can actually do so, thereby ensuring the nation’s progress as well as individual fulfillment.
Undeniably, welfare measures have brought down the number of BPL families, in Bengal as well as in other parts of the country. But the number of unemployed youths has not shrunk. Our leaders are oblivious of the fact that doles are turning a productive section of the population into unproductive assets. Since most doles are targeted towards rural populace, the money could also be better deployed to create productive assets that would enhance the earning capacity of the rural population ~ better seeds, completion of irrigation projects, setting up new fertiliser and nutrient plants, creation of local markets and access to e-commerce, setting up food processing plants, and similar other measures, leading to asset creation and long-term income generation. But then, dole as a vote-catching card is easier to play than bringing about institutional changes to improve the economic landscape.
Direct cash transfer to those below poverty line, theoretically presented as Universal Basic Income (UBI), as a public policy is an intensely debatable issue. While admitting that it can spurt consumption and boost the economy in the short run, analysts apprehend that it gradually kills the urge for exploring work opportunities and encourages the seeking of easier paths to attaining goals. A byproduct of this is a collective corruption of the psyche as taking shortcuts and successfully cornering freebies, instead of being derided, are applauded as being “clever.” Right to life and livelihood are inextricably linked with the Right to Live with Dignity which cannot be ensured by promoting the Dole culture which creates a nation dependent on charities. Populist leaders’ claims of striving for an egalitarian society through such doles are unsustainable as this policy is an implicit acknowledgement by them that the state cannot foster an economy that creates enough opportunities to provide a livelihood for most of the people.
Ms Banerjee’s latest addition to the slew of welfare measures, the Lakshmir Bhandar scheme (a monthly assistance of Rs 1,000 each to be given to women of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe families and Rs 500 each to women of general categories under the scheme), as per government proclamation, will help 1.6 crore families across the state during the Covid-19 pandemic when opportunities to earn a livelihood have shrunk, particularly in rural areas. Promised before the polls as a basic income to women voters, WB government changed its stance after the election. One of her trusted lieutenants touted the scheme as ‘hat kharach’ (petty cash for meeting small expenses) which will give our mothers, sisters, and daughters the freedom to visit nearby theatres for enjoying the latest block-bluster, without pleading with their male providers for money.
As the process of registration of beneficiaries under the scheme started, huge crowds of women jostled to grab the form in both rural and urban centres, even leading to stampede in some places, causing grievous injury to many and aggravating the risk of Covid infections amidst a raging pandemic. Such desperation, lament the advocates of women’s rights, is indicative of a dismal scenario of very poor participation of women in paid work in Bengal, denial of any share in family income, societal disregard of the labour they put in running the household or in farm work, assisting their male folks and not merely the lure of having some fun and frolic like watching movies. The scheme has overwhelmed the grass-root level administrative apparatus and as per government sources, the state government might be forced to cut down allotment of some departments to raise funds for the scheme.
The massive mandate received by Ms Banerjee gives her a potent opportunity to take bold measures to come down heavily on corruption and bribery and create the proper ecosystem for private entrepreneurs to make investments in large, manufacturing industries capable of creating job opportunities for the young men and women of Bengal so that they are not forced to migrate in search of greener pastures. Free from the burden of form distribution, the administration can focus better on preventing malpractices like increasing dropouts among girl children and forced marriage of adolescent girls, a phenomenon witnessed often in the rural hinterland during the Covid-induced lockdown and closure of schools. Bengal was once a proud region of pioneers in science, literature, freedom movement and drive for women’s empowerment through the initiatives of titans like Raja Rammohun Roy and Vidyasagar. The productive (both physical and intellectual) capability of the people of Bengal needs to be channeled towards attainment of excellence.