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.