In a democracy, public welfare is not a matter of benevolence. It entails the rights of the people. Indeed, the democratic compact between a government and citizens — they elect the government — is predicated upon the State’s ability to bring wide swathes of the population, especially those on the margin, within the ambit of welfarism. So it is a bit strange that the prime minister of the mother of democracies has scoffed at the political commitment towards the greater good. Interestingly, Narendra Modi was being selective even in his censure, as he usually is with facts. Speaking at a public rally, Mr Modi said that he is especially concerned about attempts by state governments — he, evidently, had Congress-ruled Karnataka and Rajasthan in mind — to provide assistance to the weakest segments of society. It is pertinent to mention that the Congress’s five guarantees in Karnataka, including a monthly stipend for women heads of households, financial assistance to unemployed graduates and so on, had helped it win the last assembly elections. In Rajasthan, the Congress has also unveiled public welfare programmes in health, employment and for the gig economy. Mr Modi hinted that such initiatives are deleterious for the coffers of the state. But that need not be the case always. Bengal, another state often accused of profligacy by
Mr Modi’s party, has, numbers suggest, actually improved its debt-to-GDP ratio. Moreover, the prime minister does not seem allergic to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s populism in the guise of welfare. Yogi Adityanath’s free rations to the poor helped the BJP return to power in Uttar Pradesh. Indians are, of course, still waiting for Mr Modi to fill their coffers with his promised sum of Rs 15 lakh. Ironically, the BJP’s ideological commitment to antyodaya — emancipating the last person in the line — is consistent with the notion of public welfare. Why point fingers at Opposition-ruled states then?
Mr Modi’s thrust against State welfarism has acquired a degree of consistency. Earlier, he had courted controversy by conflating collective, equitable well-being with the ‘revdi’ culture of freebies. His regressive views would justify the State’s further withdrawal from public welfare projects. What India, a deeply stratified society with a pronounced burden of poverty, needs is the opposite. The Centre must assist all states in their endeavour to help the needy. That is what Mr Modi owes to federalism and democracy as prime minister.