Do government’s welfare schemes influence the patterns of voting?
Despite its initial inclination to treat welfare schemes as old-fashioned instances of “vote bank politics”, welfare has become a priority of sorts for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Narendra Modi. In its first term, the Modi government launched a number of flagship welfare schemes (such as the Ujjwala Yojana, Jan Dhan Yojana and Ayushman Bharat) and rebranded others. These schemes were also integrated with Aadhaar.
In the run-up to the 2019 elections, the central government launched a new cash transfer directed at farmers — PM-Kisan — in response to rising agrarian distress. The pledge to introduce a basic income scheme (NYAY) became a central pledge in the Congress manifesto.
We know relatively little about whether such existing and promised schemes made a difference to people’s voting decisions. While the Pulwama attack and its response helped to dislodge questions of rural distress from the centre of the election agenda, media reporting suggested that the BJP’s party workers made a concerted effort to reach out to beneficiaries from different schemes as part of their grassroots campaigning.
In a new research paper, Rajeshwari Deshpande, KK Kailash and I study data from the National Election Studies post-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS to ask whether the BJP received electoral benefits from the provision of welfare schemes in 2019.
Asking whether incumbent governments benefit electorally from welfare policies is a difficult question. In India’s federal polity, it is difficult for voters to disentangle which level of government is responsible for which policy. Some areas of social policy are shared responsibilities of the central government and states. In other instances, even where the central government initiates programmes, or predominantly funds them, state governments — or panchayats in the case of a policy like Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA)— may be the main administrative level responsible for service delivery. In the past, this has allowed state governments to claim electoral credit for policies even where they were initiated, and primarily funded, by the central government.
Since 2014, however, there has been a marked centralisation in the design and implementation of welfare programmes. Prime Minister Modi has also relentlessly claimed the credit for welfare programmes. Therefore, the first question we were interested in was whether there has been a shift in how beneficiaries perceive which level of government is responsible for the delivery of different welfare schemes and entitlements.
The survey results demonstrate there has been a marked centralisation of credit attribution in 2019 compared to 2014. The centralisation is especially clear for the BJP’s new schemes such as the Ujjwala and Jan Dhan Yojana, where upwards of 70% of respondents give credit to the central government. Interestingly, the number of voters who think the central government, rather than their state government, is primarily responsible for the MGNREGA and the Awas Yojana has also increased compared to previous elections.
However, there is variation across programmes, with voters more likely to credit state governments with responsibility for pensions and Public Distribution System (PDS). These are schemes in which state governments have remained important for funding and implementation.
We then asked whether being a beneficiary of different welfare schemes increased the likelihood that a respondent would vote for the BJP. Welfare policies are not likely to be the decisive factor in explaining vote choice, but our analysis suggests that the BJP and its allies saw a statistically significant increase in support among the beneficiaries of certain welfare schemes when other variables such as caste, class, gender, religion, education and rural-urban status are controlled for.
Beneficiaries of schemes that are closely associated with the central government like the Ujjwala, the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and Ayushman Bharat were more likely to vote for the BJP in 2019. Interestingly, we found that being a beneficiary of MGNREGA and pension schemes made voters less likely to vote for the BJP or its allies. However, the MGNREGA beneficiaries did not disproportionately vote for the Congress, suggesting that welfare schemes may not create long-lasting associations with the party that introduced them.
Thus, based on our preliminary analysis of the NES post-poll survey data, we find that since 2014, there has been a marked centralisation of credit attribution by voters for welfare programmes. However, in certain domains — especially PDS and pensions — voters still see their state government as key. The BJP appears to have received greater electoral support from beneficiaries of programmes that are closely associated with the central government.
We must interpret these results with caution. Many voters receive benefits from multiple programmes which are associated with both the central and state governments. Furthermore, it is unlikely that welfare schemes were the only factor in people’s vote choices. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that there are some important patterns emerging in the electoral politics of welfare which are likely to shape policy design and implementation in the future.
First, the centralisation of credit-claiming for welfare policies may already be reducing the incentives for Opposition-ruled state governments to cooperate with the Centre in supporting the implementation of central government programmes. Second, the introduction of new all-India policies such as “one nation, one ration card” is likely to be perceived by some state governments as a direct attempt to enter turf that has traditionally been theirs, generating new sources of Centre-state tension. This may mean that even when policies are designed with the best of intentions — such as improving the access of inter-state migrant labourers to the PDS — electoral dynamics may undermine bottom-up incentives to improve implementation and enhance local accountability.
Thinking of ways to share the credit between the central and state governments may be necessary in order to create stronger incentives for Centre-state cooperation in working towards improved social outcomes.
This article is based on “The BJP’s Welfare Schemes: Did they Make a Difference in the 2019 Elections?” by Rajeshwari Deshpande, Louise Tillin and KK Kailash, forthcoming in Studies in Indian Politics
The views expressed are personal