The remarkable success of the BJP in the recent parliamentary elections, particularly in the UP, can be explained in two very different ways. There is an enthusiastic response to this. A section of commentators argue that the BJP’s managerial skills have helped it reach out to the most marginalized sections of society. As a result, the party was able to consolidate its winning configuration. In contrast, the pessimistic argument that sees the BJP’s electoral popularity – especially that which stems from the party’s strategic use of welfare schemes – as a kind of false conscience, which would further reinforce political authoritarianism.
These explanations are more or less electoral. They rely heavily on a direct and simple correlation between social expectations and voting behavior. There is a strong assumption that if the social crisis is not managed it will naturally lead to a vote for change or what is commonly referred to as anti-incumbency. This rather restricted view of electoral politics is problematic because it does not explain the changing terms of political discourse and the emergent nature of the Indian state. This is why there is a serious need to unpack the contemporary meanings of welfarism and empowerment. Specifically, we should critically examine the so-called welfare state model – a residue of post-World War II political thought.
The notion of welfarism has changed a lot over the past three decades. The liberalization of the Indian economy in the early 1990s marked a turning point in this regard. Narasimha Rao’s regime gave the impression that the open market framework would eventually facilitate an independent and self-regulating economic sphere. The task of the state, in this scheme, was solely to resolve societal conflicts. This new imagination was wholeheartedly accepted by all political parties, including CPI, CPM and BJP. The state began to define itself as a neutral agency mediating between competing social groups and communities while maintaining a distance from the economic sphere. In the context of this important political change, a sectoral approach to the idea of well-being has gradually developed. Social groups – women, children, Dalits, Adivasis, unorganized workers, minorities/Muslims, etc. — were treated as fragments to design independent policies. A new discourse of inclusion/exclusion characterizes welfarism as empowerment.
The Modi regime gave a radical direction to this imaginary. Without deviating from the political consensus on liberalizing and opening up the market, the Modi government has made it clear that job creation is not a responsibility of the state. Instead, citizens are encouraged to become job creators. The official New India doctrine is also based on the idea of responsive people and citizens.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah’s recent interview with this newspaper is very relevant to elaborate on this point. Explaining the BJP’s imagination of empowerment, Shah said, “There is a difference in the way we work: we have given gas connections, electricity connections and it is up to them to pay their bills. We built them toilets, but they have to maintain them… when you take populist action, you promise to pay the electricity bills, free gas, etc. (IE, March 1)
Equally interesting is the popular reception of this changing official attitude to welfarism. The various CSDS-Lokniti studies show that unemployment, economic distress, poverty, rising prices/inflation are still perceived as major socio-economic concerns. However, these issues do not always translate into a vote for change. It simply means that there is no correlation between economic hardship and voting behavior.
Voters, it seems, have accepted the fact that empowerment means one-time benefits on a case-by-case basis. Although the desire for permanent government employment has not yet completely died out, grassroots people are equally enthusiastic about the perks offered by governments and political parties. In fact, it is recognized that the state is not responsible for social crises and that the government should not be blamed for unemployment and poverty, and even the mismanagement of health infrastructure during the pandemic.
This form of welfarism brings us to what I describe as the charitable state: a state that does not see welfarism as its fundamental political duty; instead, it provides benefits to citizens as acts of benevolence and generosity to negotiate with them in the realm of competitive electoral politics.
The BJP’s election campaign in the UP revolved around this charitable state model (although a very different version of it can also be found in the AAP’s election strategy in Punjab). The party focused on two crucial aspects: the reconfiguration of the narrative and the effective mobilization of voters.
The BJP’s sankalp patra addresses voters as possible beneficiaries (labharthi) without deviating from its Hindutva agenda. A carefully crafted package of economic benefits and infrastructure development is offered simply to strike a clear deal with voters. At the same time, given identity patterns – Dalit, backward, minority – are completely ignored to legitimize official categories such as SC/ST/OBC. This careful reconfiguration helped the party make deft adjustments with constituency-level voter groups.
The BJP’s electoral machinery is also being redesigned to support the charity state model. A three-level mobilization system is created. The promises made in the sankalp patra are broadcast in a very professional manner to attract voters through media campaigns. This is complemented by the explanation given by the leaders in their speeches. Finally, the workers at the local level, the voter-mobilizers, translated these promises into the language of everyday interactions. This coordinated effort has created a quiet, yet impactful narrative of BJP charity in which Hindutva always remains a subtext.
The opposition parties, it seems, have not yet fully understood that the success of the BJP is inextricably linked to the model of the charity state. Hindutva politics cannot be described simply as a project of upper caste/class Hindus supported by big business houses. He invented a new class politics – a kind of passive revolution.
(The author is an associate professor at CSDA and has recently published an edited volume (with Peter R deSouza and M Sanjeer Alam) Companion to Indian Democracy: Resilience, Fragility, Ambivalence)