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WHAT IS POPULISM?

- Voters have not booted out redistributive schemes in India

What do voters want from their elect- ed government? Quite apart from its political significance, this question has very important consequences for public policies. After all, those political parties whose actions and policies are largely influenced by the desire to win elections are more likely to formulate policies that are in consonance with voter preferences. This makes the question particularly relevant in India because virtually all the established parties in India — perhaps with the sole exception of the Left parties — are almost entirely guided by the office motive. Ideology certainly plays a very small role in policy-making in India.

So, what do we know about voter preferences in India? We have just had elections for five state assemblies, including Delhi. These were labelled the semi-finals — the finals are supposed to be the general elections, which have to be held before May, this year. As soon as the results of the last elections started trickling in, it became crystal clear that the Congress was going to be routed in Rajasthan. This was the signal for every so-called expert in the TV studios to claim that “populism” no longer pays in Indian politics. One particularly colourful remark was that “The electorate has voted out populism.”

But, what is populism? Unfortunately, this has come to mean very different things in different places. For instance, in global politics, populism is often used to refer to a movement in which an “outsider” or anti-establishment figure tries to capture power by appealing directly to the masses. Some dictionaries will define populism as a political philosophy that favours the rights of the “people” against the elites. In contrast, populism in popular parlance in India has come to acquire an unsavoury connotation. It is used to refer to virtually any policy that is redistributive in nature instead of being purely growth-oriented. This is particular true when such a policy is announced just before an election.

So, the employment guarantee schemes, the food security bill that guarantees some amount of foodgrains at highly subsidized prices, old-age pension schemes that are in place in several states, are all “populist”. So are the loan-waiver schemes that are implemented from time to time, and indeed all the various subsidies that are announced from time to time. All of them are bundled together under one label.

This is unfortunate because all such measures cannot be equated. For instance, any government which professes to be a “caring” government must take action to provide the economically vulnerable with at least minimal access to food and employment or the old and infirm to some income support. On the other hand, such a government need not subsidize diesel, water or electricity simply because the poor also consume these items. The latter type of policy is very badly targeted and also leads to very bad allocative consequences. For instance, many individuals who use cars intensively are switching to diesel-operated cars in order to take advantage of the subsidy. In other words, some “populist” schemes are good and need to be strengthened and properly implemented, while others are best avoided.

In view of this, it would be rather unfortunate if the electorate in the five states have actually turned against all redistributive schemes. Do voters really prefer growth at all costs? Have they suddenly turned to the Right and have become ardent supporters of the belief that the benefits of growth will trickle down to the poor? Is this how politicians will interpret the latest round of assembly results?

It does not take much time or effort to realize that there is no evidence supporting such a conclusion. Consider, for instance, the two states of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. The Congress, which was the incumbent party in Rajasthan, has been decimated in the elections. In sharp contrast, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh has swept the polls and now commands a two-thirds majority in the state assembly. But does this differential electoral performance have anything to do with the existence or absence of “populist schemes”?

It is true that the Congress government in Rajasthan did introduce several new schemes that were explicitly redistributive in nature. Its most ambitious scheme was one that made generic drugs available for free in government hospitals and health-care institutions. The scheme incurred an annual cost of Rs 200 crore, but helped a large number of poor patients who could not have bought the medicines on their own. The government also introduced a pension scheme for those below the poverty line, as well as for widows and some other groups. It also had some other relatively minor schemes directed mainly at women, such as a 30 per cent concession for women travelling in public buses. The large number of such schemes even attracted the charge that the government was throwing money at the people in order to win votes.

But, it is important to realize that the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh had an equally impressive array of redistributive schemes. (Since many of these were directed at women and girls, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the MP chief minister, is affectionately called “Mama”.) So, one must look elsewhere for an explanation of the difference in electoral fortunes of the two governments. And there are a large number of very plausible explanations — the faulty implementation of these schemes in Rajasthan, the widespread perception that the United Progressive Alliance government at the Centre, as well as the Congress government in the state, was very corrupt, the sharp increase in prices of essential food items, a pro-Modi wave.

Hopefully, practising politicians know the ground realities better than the armchair experts in the TV studios. Indeed, there is reason to believe that this is true. Every state — irrespective of the party or coalition in power — has a package of redistributive schemes. As a matter of fact, initiatives like the mid-day meal scheme, employment guarantee schemes, or those involving subsidized provision of food were started in several states — the Central government got into the act quite late in the day.

So, irrespective of which group of parties comes to power after the 2014 general elections, populism in the form of redistributive schemes will continue to be practised. Perhaps the next government will derive the correct conclusions from the electoral results in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Voters have not booted out populism. They are no longer fooled by the mere existence of these schemes. They want these schemes to be properly implemented.