Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay | â€˜Freebieâ€™ politics: Can Opp. use PM tactics against BJP?
It is ironical that barely months after leading the BJP to an astonishing successive victory in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections by, among other strategies, repeatedly invoking the unfailing delivery of the mother of all populist welfare schemes, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PM-GKAY), Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched an all-out blitzkrieg against the politics of promising freebies or giveaways in return for votes. The warning announced by him on the pitfalls of the “dole culture” is being applauded by members of his fan club who are committed to laissez faire, as being never too late.
It has now also been flagged by the Supreme Court. Paradoxically, Mr Modi is now targeting that very political culture which he has spawned, even though this went against the apocryphal boast attributed to him -- that he “does not believe in giving anything free”. But, behind the Prime Minister’s recantation of competitive welfare politics lies the growing fear of being beaten by equally adept adversaries at his own game, in the arena of so-called non-discriminatory welfare measures that Narendra Modi introduced after 2014, as well as the good old composite Hindutva idea, albeit not always headily confrontationist.
The first sign of Mr Modi feeling the pressure of extricating himself from a possible economically ruinous situation in the run-up to 2024, which would be politically perilous, was almost a fortnight ago when he addressed a BJP rally after inaugurating and laying the foundation stones of a slew of projects -- including an airport and AIIMS -- amounting to several thousand crores of rupees in Jharkhand’s Deoghar district. His ire was directed at what he termed as being far-fetched electoral promises. He targeted “short-cut politics” for having the potential to wreck the country.
“It is very easy to lure people and get votes by making promises without thinking of the consequences… a country that plays short-cut politics faces a short circuit,” Mr Modi said.
Not a leader to take chances and expect that this allusion had adequately warned people about the populism of other parties while electorally rewarding the BJP due to the implementation of similar programmes, Mr Modi very soon rephrased his words more directly.
The venue shifted on this occasion from Jharkhand to Uttar Pradesh and the occasion was the inauguration of yet another infrastructure project -- Bundelkhand Expressway, parts of which infamously developed cracks within days.
Not leaving anything to ambiguity, the PM said: “Today in our country, attempts are being made to collect votes by distributing free revdis. This revdi culture is very dangerous for the nation’s development. The people of the country, especially the youth, need to be careful about this revdi culture. The people of revdi culture will not build expressways, airports or defence corridors for you.”
By now, even those who hadn’t known about this typically North Indian winter sweetmeat would have learnt what it is. Being small in size and relatively cheaper, these are consumed in handfuls, so Mr Modi was trying to convey to people that those who give a handful of these don’t have the capacity or vision to provide for the more ornate and tastier delicacies. In the development or political jargon, the intended message was that the BJP’s opponents promise small freebies, while the ruling party provides people with big infrastructure projects.
Rest assured, Mr Modi was not having second thoughts about unplanned and uncontrolled social spending. It must be recalled that despite being elected in 2014 amid hopes that he would be a male Margaret Thatcher, Mr Modi displayed his political grooming by embracing antoyodaya and declaring that his government would work towards uplifting the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid. In India, the challengers always were populists and incumbents too, under pressure, rolled out such schemes with the polls in mind.
So, what explains Mr Modi’s urgency to run down other parties resorting to his tactics? Is Mr Modi’s attack directed against any particular party, or is it targeted at all Opposition parties?
Mr Modi may not have referred to him by name, but in a manner so typical of him, Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is rearing for a repeat of the Modi versus Kejriwal battle, but on an epic scale and not limited to a single constituency as in 2014 -- has donned the mantle of being the chief revdi distributor. In a video he listed his populist policies -- free education, free health and moholla clinics, free electricity for up to 200 units in Delhi and 300 units in Punjab and free transport for women in state-run buses. But more dramatically, he asked, are free yoga instructive classes and religious yatras too revdis?
This is where the Aam Aadmi Party leader’s political cunning becomes evident. Mr Modi, after all, enlisted yoga’s soft power by securing the observance of an International Yoga Day and making it a public affair.
Likewise, the subsidised teerth yatras underscore that Mr Kejriwal has no intention of locking horns with Mr Modi on the Hindutva turf.
Referred to as the “Chhota Modi”, the Delhi CM has the wherewithal for emerging as a challenger to the Prime Minister, especially after his Punjab victory that underscored the universality of the Delhi model, like the Gujarat model once propelled Mr Modi to power at the Centre.
The tropes that the BJP uses against the Congress and regional parties – for being dynasts – doesn’t work against Mr Kejriwal, and this suggests the urgency to level charges of corruption.
There’s an inconsistency in Mr Modi’s disparagement of “in-hands of people” schemes of adversaries, while sticking with his programmes.
The finance ministry recently denied it was against further extending the PM-GKAY after its current extension ends. With the polls in Gujarat due in November-December, to be followed shortly by Himachal Pradesh, both states where the AAP has plans to foray in a big way, it’s unlikely that the Centre will risk ending the free-rations schemes, or even curtailing quantities.
With the economy showing no signs of any dramatic improvement, and livelihood concerns paramount for most people, it’s difficult to visualise Mr Modi’s exit route. Will the charge of the Opposition as promoters of the “revdi” culture stick if the PM-GKAY is extended after September 30? By contrasting his opponents’ small freebies with his achievements, like roads, railway tracks, houses, dams, irrigational projects, Mr Modi appears to be juxtaposing the big dreams he can promise, with the morsels offered by his opponents. Will people again be swayed by the promises of a huge canvas, or be content with miniature “paintings” that can be held close to the chest?