April 2, 2024


Will welfare populism be a winning tool for the 2024 elections?

(Image credit: Prashant Kharote, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the things that gets a lot of airtime in the run-up to elections is the country’s economic health. There’s a slew of governmental and other indicators that show India to be a pretty robust economy. The opposition parties don’t agree. Ultimately, it comes down to what the millions of voters think.

And what will voters think? We shall see. But what could influence their thinking? One factor is if they’ve received government handouts. Welfare schemes have become commonplace in our political landscape. They’re a dime a dozen as parties try to one-up each other in what they can offer the masses. Apart from their economic outcomes, can they be a winning electoral strategy?


Populist politics isn’t new to India, with recent national governments not shying away from populist tendencies. A couple of years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made critical remarks on parties and politicians using ‘freebie culture’ and ‘shortcuts’ to win votes. Many observed that the BJP and Modi himself have touted such schemes come campaign time.

Welfare populism can mean different things to different people at different times. India lags behind advanced capitalist economies in providing a robust social security net. The argument for why politicians shower voters with freebie schemes could be the disconnect between economic growth and job creation.

Voters have become increasingly suspicious of economic growth being the saviour for all development challenges. A couple of things are at play here – mounting inequality and increased vulnerability of workers ranging from white-collar to farmers. On the one hand, this needs to be delved into deeper. On the other, politicians across party lines resort to several welfare schemes to calm or galvanise voters.

Take the recent fight and debate for a minimum support price (MSP). The government is hesitant, while farmers and the opposition are adamant. The main function of electoral politics seems to now be a bargain between wealth accumulators and welfare seekers. Any emphasis on redistribution seems coupled with a de-emphasis on job creation in rhetoric.

Nowhere is this more evident than in South India. It has a history of welfare populism, where pre-poll campaigns are mostly parties announcing a bunch of expensive freebies.

India is a unique case in the evolution of the welfare state. There’s less discretion in the selection of beneficiaries, direct transfers are increasingly favoured, and digital public infrastructure has changed the game. Digital infrastructure has given governments access to granular, household-level information to formulate policies. Aadhaar is a prime example.

Ambitious welfare programs and policies have already been announced and have been a central issue across campaigns as the country gears up to head to the polls. What effect will it have?

VIEW: Worked before, so why not now?

Modi has figured out how welfare populism can work in the world’s largest democracy. Put his face on all of it. For the majority of people who don’t read the papers or access government websites, it’s the welfare schemes. “Pradhan Mantri” is the default prefix. While some see the government’s tactic as creepy, the BJP has worked out how to claim credit for things people like. Polling has shown voters giving credit to the Centre and Modi over the years.

The electoral results speak for themselves. It’s a winning formula that even some state governments are following suit. Newspaper ads in Maharashtra showed Uddhav Thackeray’s picture to highlight cash payments to the kin of COVID-19 victims. Take the AAP, for example. Many argue welfare politics helped it win the Assembly elections. Apart from the usual spending on healthcare and education, the free water and electricity supply shouldn’t be overlooked.

Even the Congress has banked on welfare schemes ahead of the Karnataka Assembly elections. Its “five guarantees” helped it win 135 seats and come to power. In some of the post-2019 election analyses, the Ujjwala Yojana, aimed at women, was the most popular of Modi’s welfare schemes. It’s why the BJP was able to attract more women voters compared to 2014.

COUNTERVIEW: Can’t bet the house on it

The rules-based direct transfers, which are relatively new for India, are supposed to reduce favouritism and corruption. They’re perceived to be sure-fire vote winners. However, there’s not much evidence to show if they guarantee a victory. The problem with schemes that might yield quick short-term results is they can’t be withdrawn. The government isn’t going to take back cash handouts, for example. It becomes a neverending fiscal liability.

The recent Budget produced headlines to the tune of “it ditched populism”. There was an expectation that the government would use the Budget to give in to populist measures, but that didn’t pan out. It showed the government’s shrewdness. Banking on welfare populism through the Budget might not work. Also, they were confident enough that they didn’t need it given Modi’s popularity and the BJP’s strengths on the ground.

Politics in India is still identity, religious, and caste-based. That’s not to say economic factors don’t play a role. It’s just that the logic of identity voting persists. Even with things like direct benefit transfers, voters appear to look for outcomes rather than processes. For the BJP, Modi’s popularity and its core Hindutva base might well be enough to take them across the finish line. The opposition parties might need to fall back on welfare politics, but that’s a gamble.

Reference Links:

  • As Elections Approach, A Sharp Debate On India’s Economic Trajectory – Forbes
  • Welfare Without Populism – Open Magazine
  • When Does Welfare Win Votes in India? – Carnegie Endowment of International Peace
  • Do The Assembly Election Results Indicate A Shift Towards Welfarism? – Outlook
  • Modi’s thrifty populism is working for now, but may have a cost in future – Business Standard
  • Interim Budget 2024 ditched populism. Modi govt didn’t give in to election temptation – The Print
  • No left-right divide on economic issues among Indian masses. BJP’s welfarism played a role – The Print

What is your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)

a) Welfare populism will be a winning tool for the 2024 elections.

b) Welfare populism won’t be a winning tool for the 2024 elections.


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