A recent article in this journal attempted to decode the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) model of welfarism, but ended up misrepresenting it. Failing to look beyond the Western binaries of socialism and neoliberalism and examining the BJP’s rich ideological history, commentators fail to understand the BJP’s view on welfare and economic development.
Welfarism under the Narendra Modi government is driven by the BJP’s continued commitment to its core value of Antyodaya (no one is left behind), and was necessitated by the dismal state of public service delivery when the party took office in 2014.
Since its founding, the BJP and its leaders have remained committed to the principle of Deendayal Upadhyaya of Antyodaya. Prime Minister (PM) Modi’s pledge to Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (with all, for the development of all) embodies this goal of inclusive development. Unlike the Congress and other opposition parties which have deployed welfare as a quid pro quo strategy and tied the benefit to electoral support, the BJP dharma (religion) works for the poorest of the poor and ensures that no one be left behind. Indeed, the eradication of poverty through the provision of social assistance is primarily the duty and responsibility of government, rather than an instrumental strategy for winning elections.
Before 2014, millions of households did not even have access to basic services such as electricity, water, sanitation, housing and banking services. Decades of disregard for effectiveness and efficiency were evident and concerted efforts were needed to improve social protection. And, therefore, we set out to change the status quo and subvert India’s social offer.
Over the past eight years, we have ensured that citizens, regardless of caste, religion, gender or partisan identification, can benefit from the programs for which they are eligible. We’re moving fast towards saturated coverage of top shows, so no one is left behind. Aren’t these characteristics of a rights-based approach?
There has not only been a remarkable turnaround in the production of various social protection schemes, but also a significant improvement in the results. This has been documented by rigorous evaluations and studies. For example, a recent International Monetary Fund report found that extreme poverty in India did not increase during Covid-19. This is due to free grain distribution under Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana. The World Resources Institute study of the Ujjwala Yojana found a reduction in deaths from air pollution, saving more than 150,000 lives each year. However, many analysts choose to remain silent rather than acknowledge these inconvenient truths.
There is a misconception that welfarism under Modi simply focuses on distributing “private benefits” to citizens while important areas such as health and education remain ignored. This is a myopic analysis and failure to understand the holistic benefits of social protection schemes under the Modi government.
For example, isn’t the Swachh Bharat mission also a health intervention, as it seeks to end open defecation? Wouldn’t the aid provided to agricultural households through the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi program enable them to invest in the education and nutrition of children?
Despite the active role of the state, the extensive coverage and the redistribution of public resources, some commentators remain committed to labeling social assistance under Modi as “neoliberal”. They expect the government not only to build private toilets for tens of millions of households, but also to maintain them. Anything less than that is casually dismissed as “neoliberalism.” The only aspect of Swachh Bharat that promotes individualism is that rather than open defecation in the fields, people are encouraged to use private toilets in their residences. Is the Jal Jeevan mission also neoliberal in that it aims to shift people from the drudgery of getting water from distant sources such as ponds and village wells to individual tap connections?
So what is welfarism under the Modi government? This is to replace the ancient state-led patronage regime with an effective state that keeps its promises. It has meant building a state that refuses to accept corruption as a fait accompli and takes active steps to maximize coverage. Moreover, it is a break from an unfortunate past where PMs have admitted that barely 15 paise out of ₹1 envoy from Delhi reached the poor, but did nothing to stop the leaks.
Under Prime Minister Modi, the government has taken concrete steps such as the move to Direct Benefit Transfers (DBT) to plug leaks in social protection. This focus on maximizing coverage is what distinguishes the BJP’s model of welfarism from those of other parties.
To fully understand what welfarism means under Modi and why it resonates among the masses, commentators must travel beyond Delhi, keep their ears to the ground and listen to the 30 million families who have been granted a new home under the prime minister. Awas Yojana, the 120 million farmers who are labharthis (beneficiaries) of PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, the 800 million labharthis who have received rations since the start of the pandemic, the 450 million citizens who opened their first bank account through the Jan Dhan Yojana, or the 90 million households who obtained their first bottle of LPG through the Ujjwala Yojana.
Syed Zafar Islam is an MP, BJP National Spokesperson and former Managing Director of Deutsche Bank, India
Opinions expressed are personal