INDIA’S CHANGING ELECTORAL LANDSCAPE has prompted a new turn in debates about the future of the country’s welfare provisioning. In 2004, the election of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coincided with accelerating economic growth and an expansion in state revenues. Together, these factors created an opportunity for the government to promote a raft of rights-based welfare policies. This social expenditure was presented as integral to the UPA winning a second electoral mandate, in 2009, and as a necessary corrective to the “India shining” narrative that—so the myth goes—lost the BJP the elections five years earlier.
The election of the Narendra Modi-led BJP in 2014 during a growth slowdown has occasioned a more critical discussion. Post-election pundits were quick to claim that the UPA had been discredited for clinging to an “entitlements culture” which was out of touch with the aspirations of “rising India.” One prominent critic, the economist Surjit Bhalla, wrote in the Indian Express that the perpetuation of social transfer programmes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Public Distribution System reflected a mindset in which India could only be a poor country. He described an “entrenched … poverty industry” operating mostly under “Congress-led governments that feel it is in their political interest to perpetuate the notion that India is poor.”
But welfare politics in India have been changing in ways that are considerably more complex than these hints of ideological differences between national coalitions might suggest. For one, the Congress does not have a monopoly on the design and implementation of social welfare programmes. At the state level, many governments, led by political parties of all colours, have expanded welfare provision in the course of the last decade or more, and experimented with new ways of delivering—and seeking credit for—centrally sponsored schemes. Many other state governments have not—but the reasons for this are not straightforwardly partisan or ideological.
The notion that the newer generation of social programmes are inefficient and foster dependency also needs to be closely scrutinised. The politics shaping the design and implementation of welfare policies vary across space, and these differences can have significant consequences for the effectiveness of such programmes. A distinction needs to be made between the direct, contingent exchange of material benefits, government jobs or even personal security in return for votes, on the one hand, and the recognition that the effective delivery of social programmes can support re-election, on the other. The former might be regarded as fostering “dependency,” as well as distorting social expenditure by privileging short-term ends over longer-term developmental needs. The latter approach offers a vision of a more virtuous cycle in which governments may be held to account by voters for their performance, thereby helping to establish a clearer relationship between expenditure and development outcomes.
A forthcoming volume, which I co-edited with the political scientists Rajeshwari Deshpande and KK Kailash, compares the politics of welfare across Indian states. On the basis of in-depth qualitative examination of processes of policy implementation at the state level conducted by multiple authors, we can distinguish between the welfare approaches of two loose clusters of states. The first comprises relatively consistent performers, which have more coherently and efficiently implemented social welfare programmes in the course of the past decade or more. In these states, well-organised political parties or consistent interventions by political leaders have helped foster social policies that are reasonably sustainable over the long term. These policies tend to be implemented in relatively rule-bound ways, and often favour more universal inclusion over targeted approaches to eligibility. Their qualified success may also be attributable to limits on the ability of lower-level politicians and bureaucrats to control access to programmes and service quality.
The states within this cluster range quite widely, from familiar cases in which left-of-centre regimes have been in power over the long term (such as Kerala), to those in which competing political parties advance welfare policies to appeal to broad swathes of the public, and have ratcheted up provision over time (such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu). There is also a newer kind of regime, for example in the state of Chhattisgarh, which we describe as “incorporationist.” In this state, political and economic life is dominated by a narrow socioeconomic elite that nevertheless implements, in a reasonably efficient way, major social protection programmes for the rural poor. This approach has helped to widen the electoral base of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party. With the exception of Kerala for five years and Andhra Pradesh until its bifurcation, none of the states in this cluster were ruled by the Congress in the period of UPA government at the centre.
These states vary significantly in levels of per capita income and poverty, but they all have somewhat stable coalitions of political support for continued welfare programmes. Partly as a result, they tend to see greater continuity across changes of state government, making it more difficult to roll back provisions. States in this cluster have sought to protect the public provisioning of social services, and to actively regulate the development of private markets in an attempt to improve the quality of services accessible to the poorest. Thus Kerala and Tamil Nadu have used the introduction of health insurance under the Rashtriya Bima Swasthya Yojana to strengthen the state’s role as a provider, as well as funder, of tertiary health care. In Chhattisgarh, efficiency reforms to the Public Distribution System involved the “de-privatisation” of fair-price shops and of transportation networks.
The second cluster comprises states that have less consistently implemented welfare programmes, demonstrating weaker political commitment to the effective provision of social services. Unlike the first cluster, welfare policies in these states tend to have a relatively marginal role in the electoral platforms of major political parties. While centrally sponsored government schemes still operate here, local political and economic environments limit their effectiveness.
There is plenty of variation within this group. On one side are some of India’s richer states, such as Gujarat, in which a “pro-business” policy orientation privileges economic growth over welfare policies. Such states may promise greater labour-market participation, rather than social safety nets or redistributive social policy.
On the other side are some of India’s poorest states, which have deeper problems of state capacity and public administration. Their political patterns have also militated against longer-term developmental expenditure. This includes states, such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where since the late 1980s regional parties have forged competing electoral coalitions around appeals to caste identity and social justice. These states have introduced social programmes aimed at protecting and building the esteem of particular communities. But they typically see lower levels of cross-regime policy stability, because successive governments draw support from, and thus privilege, different groups. Here, the delivery of government programmes leaves greater scope for the exercise of local bureaucratic and political discretion, which often leads to exclusions and inefficiencies.
The most extreme cases are states such as Jharkhand, where political power is so personalised and localised that regimes lack a clear sense of public purpose. Here, public office is closely linked to private gain, and there is weak rule of law.
Not every state falls neatly into this two-fold classification; the clusters are suggestive, rather than exhaustive. States approach welfare problems, and implement centrally sponsored schemes in line with local conditions, in many different ways. There is no clear consensus, even within national political parties, on the shape of social policy. The diversity of state-level environments and the centrality of the states in policy implementation also makes it hard for the central government to intervene effectively in the enactment of centrally designed and sponsored schemes.
Instead of a reductive debate about “entitlements” versus “aspirations”—or one that sees these as mutually exclusive categories—the country needs a more open discussion about the extensive policy experimentation across states, and about the relationship between such welfare provision and different types of political regime. There are multiple routes towards improved welfare outcomes—as demonstrated by the variety of approaches taken by India’s states.