PM Narendra Modi's announcement of an Rs 1.25 lakh crore package for Bihar this week has triggered a counter from the JD(U)-RJD alliance which has termed little as a ploy to buy Bihar's voters through an "auction". It has unleashed competitive bidding by other states which feel they deserve a special package as much, if not more, as Bihar. The Modi announcement has also altered the political discourse in Bihar partly, generating curiosity about what the package includes and who would benefit or not.
But the politics of special packages throws up a deeper set of questions.
Is it a legitimate tool to muster up support before an election? Does it violate the principle of a level playing field, by giving the party in power at the centre an unfair advantage over its rivals? Does it really translate into political benefits or is it largely confined to scoring points in a battle of perceptions?
The primary task of a political party is to win elections and access state power. When a party gets to power, its core aim is to use its stint in government to consolidate and expand this power, to win the next election. What is often dubbed as 'votebank politics' is a legitimate way for parties in government to cater to specific constituencies - farmers, religious minorities, caste groups - and address their aspirations to ensure these groups support the party next time around in polls.
But when this is done in the course of governance, one can see it as a part of a normal policy-making process in a democracy. When it is done right before an election, it has a more direct and narrow political subtext.
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Make no mistake though, every party makes policies or provides freebies in some form or the other before polls. Bihar's own CM Nitish Kumar just regularised almost 400,000 school teachers, a long-standing demand, that enhances their pay scale - this was also a clear measure aimed at polls. The UPA waived rural debt worth thousands of crores before the 2009 elections, a specific electoral ploy to win the farmer constituency. The centre has greater manovering space and can offer direct financial packages.
Sanjay Kumar, among India's preeminent psephologists at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), says the politics of direct packages is relatively recent and goes back a decade or decade and a half. He believes this does offer a political advantage to the party in power. "Analysts may know that there is a substantial time lag between the announcement and delivery. The finance ministry has to formalise it; budgets have to account for it; if the ministry says they don't have enough fiscal space, the allocations may get even more spread out over years." But intricacies are often lost on the common voter, Kumar believes, who begin to see the package as a firm commitment.
The other reason parties in centre do this is to portray an impression that having the same party at the state will yield dividends. A top BJP leader in Bihar admitted to HT that the idea is to convey that having BJP in the state will lead to a harmonious relationship with the centre. But Nitish Kumar has countered this by delinking the centre and state performance and pointing to the BJP ruled states which claimed to do well during the UPA rule at centre. At test here is the sophistication of the Indian voter in making this distinction.
Sanjay Kumar believes that central packages need not translate into direct electoral benefit if the opposition can communicate the purpose, the timing, the intent behind the package announcement. If the opposition is able to do it effectively and portray it as a cynical move, it may erode even existing goodwill.
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Former chief election commissioner SY Quraishi has a similar mixed view on the efficacy of such packages. "It does institutionally disturb the level playing field. The government in power is in a position to promise crore and crore of rupees." Given that such announcements are made before the poll code of conduct kicks in, there is no legal bar and Election Commission can do little.
But Quraishi too says the move need not necessarily work, pointing out many parties who make such promises also lose elections. "Many citizens can see through such moves. Why is it that parties suddenly get all the bright ideas on development a month before the elections? People may be happy to take the benefit but they will also ridicule it and do their own thing." The onus, he says, lies on the opposition, the media, and a more aware electorate to examine such announcements and promises carefully.
The announcement of these packages is also linked to the nature of the state, the competitiveness of the party at centre in the state's electoral fray, and what is at stake. It is unlikely that the BJP will make a similar announcement for a Tamil Nadu where it has little at stake; it will do so in a place like Bihar which will affect national politics.
Here then is the final takeaway from India's growing politics of packages. It shows an increasing hunger among the electorate for real development resources and the push by parties to meet this desire before polls. It gives an edge to parties in government who have these resources to play with, compromising rules of democracy. But there is no clear link that promising resources will result in electoral wins, for the Indian voter is today smarter than the politician thinks.