The victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2014 elections will remain a watershed moment for Indian democracy in many ways than one. Coming at a time when the economy is in a serious mess, the victory of the BJP and the defeat of the Congress party and its allies need to be analysed not just politically but also economically.
Even though this election was fought on the agenda of development—at least that is what the BJP would like to believe—the party was silent on how the economy will be revived. The over-selling of the Gujarat model of development may have fetched votes but its performance on job creation, non-farm diversification, growth rate of wages, as well as on standard indicators of public service delivery such as on the rural job guarantee scheme and the public distribution system (PDS), hardly inspire any confidence. It is also worth noting that apart from touting the Gujarat model of development, BJP hardly offered any prescription on how to revive the economy either in its manifesto or in the speeches of prime minister-designate Narendra Modi
Analysts have been quick to term the victory of BJP in this election as a vote against entitlement-based redistributive politics which characterized the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in its first avatar. Such a conclusion is not only simplistic but also is far from the truth. A quick analysis of the seats won by the BJP makes it clear that the party won mainly in those states and seats where the principal opposition was the UPA or its supporters such as the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP).
While the UPA may have championed the rights-based approach to redistributive politics in its first avatar (2004-09), it hardly did anything to further the agenda. So much so that the second avatar of the UPA was known for having scuttled the implementation of flagship entitlement programmes such as the rural job programme through fixing such wages below state minimum wages and financial squeezing than for implementing these. This was amply clear even in the case of Rajasthan where the UPA was routed in the assembly elections in 2013 as well as now.
Rajasthan, which was among the states with the best implementation of the scheme until 2010, witnessed a sharp decline in MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) performance subsequently. But even for new initiatives such as National Food Security Act (NFSA), the UPA managed to get it passed in the months before the 2014 general election without these seeing any implementation. By then most states had their own PDS reforms with prices lower than the central legislation and coverage higher than the central legislation, effectively making the NFSA redundant.
Is this election a vote against entitlement-based politics? The evidence does not suggest so. All three showcase states for PDS reforms—Tamil Nadu (37 out of 39), Chhattisgarh (10 out of 11) and Odisha (20 out of 21) saw ruling governments, including BJP-ruled Chhattisgarh, cornering more than 90% seats in their respective states. These three states are also among the states which have done better in MGNREGA implementation, with Tamil Nadu being the best performer in recent years. On the other hand, the states where the ruling governments were routed and the BJP made the maximum gains were Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, hardly known for implementing entitlement-based programmes.
If anything, the UPA has been punished by the voters for moving away from its core agenda of entitlement-based politics. The same electorate, not so long ago, had also rewarded the UPA with an unexpected vote in favour of it. The election victory of 2009 was rightly credited to entitlement-based politics. But a strong reason for the UPA being rewarded was also that it did enact the legislation within a year of coming to power in 2004 and managed to implement it successfully by the time it went to the next polls. This time, not only did it dilute the existing programmes but also did not pass the legislation on NFSA until months before the election, with hardly any time for implementation.
But the fact that the UPA had moved away from its commitment to the aam aadmi and the agenda of inclusive politics was clear on several fronts. Most notable was its denial of the fact that the economy was simply not creating jobs and that entitlement-based politics could only be a temporary relief measure and not a substitute for more substantive reforms.
The irony is that not only did it refuse to accept the fact that the economy was going through jobless growth and high inflation but it also tried to discredit the data. This shooting-the-messenger attitude was evident not only on jobs but also on inflation. Worse, the response of the UPA was to exacerbate the problem by hoarding more grains and squeezing small- and medium-enterprises rather than bringing down prices and creating jobs.
More than their failure on entitlement-based politics, the UPA failed in meeting the aspirations of the electorate on employment. The fact that this electorate was young and restless, armed with whatever little education and skill it had, and desperate to be part of the growth process was a reality the UPA did not see. The youth refused to be a bystander in a process of growth driven by cronyism, corruption, inflation and rising inequality. And this young voter is no longer an urban youth but also a large majority in rural areas, where jobs in agriculture have declined by 35 million between 2004 and 2011.
Finally, the voter is much more aware than political parties thought. The electorate is restless and impatient and has no place for politics of opportunism. This was the reason the electorate rejected the BSP, the SP, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Left. Sadly, Nitish Kumar, who was credited with development of Bihar, was no longer trusted, given his opportunistic stand. But the biggest punishment was reserved for the Congress which used entitlement-based politics in rhetoric but backed out when it needed to deliver.
This electorate is young and restless and is quick to reward as it is quick to punish. For all it’s worth, it did so by voting for the Aam Aadmi Party when the opportunity came, but also for the BJP in the national elections. The BJP was successful in matching the aspirations of this youth with the promise of acche din (good days). To what extent the BJP will be able to meet these aspirations is something to watch out for. As of now, the mechanics of these are not clear. But it is clear that there is no making a fool of this voter.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.
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