Did welfare win votes?

JYOTI MISHRA and VIBHA ATTRI

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DO welfare schemes bring votes? More specifically, does the implementation of such programmes by the incumbent government increase its chances of being re-elected? The state delivers public services – health, education, sanitation, housing, power, transport and security – to its citizens through public policies, and citizens elect or reject the incumbent government based on their effectiveness. If government is able to satisfactorily deliver social and economic goods to its citizens, its legitimacy remains unchallenged; if it fails to do so, its authority declines.

The relationship between welfare policies and incumbency has been the subject of many studies – many of which find a positive relationship between the two. C. Zucco Jr., for one, looked at the electoral benefit of the ‘zero hunger programme’1 scheme in Brazil, claiming it as an important factor in the re-election of the ruling government in 2006. His analysis, however, also shows that while social programmes do benefit governments, this effect is not sustained during the long run as opposition parties bring similar promises in manifestos to attract voters.2 Along the same lines, Louise Tillin et. al (2015) initiated a comparative study of various Indian states to examine the interface between welfare policies and politics.

After the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar gave credit for the victory of the Congress to their flagship schemes, such as National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGA), farm loan waivers and the mid-day meal scheme. Using National Election Study (NES) 2009 data that measured the awareness and effectiveness of the social schemes launched by UPA I, they argued that though the proportion of beneficiaries was relatively small, it created a sense of goodwill for the UPA government, which converted into votes. However, they caution readers about the lack of evidence for an established causal relationship between the two. After the defeat of UPA II in 2014, C.P. Chandrashekhar and Jayati Ghosh questioned the government’s intention to expand existing social policies. They hold the decreased budgetary allocation towards welfare policies to be responsible for its defeat.

In this essay, we analyse the massive victory of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the 2019 Lok Sabha election through the prism of social policies in the presence of other factors. For context, we look at this alongside the UPA I’s victory in 2009 in terms of the various social policies it launched during its first tenure. This would also help us assess the relative magnitude of the victories of UPA I and NDA as proportional to the beneficiaries of the schemes they launched

The NDA government led by Narendra Modi was much ahead of its predecessor, United Progressive Alliance (UPA) when it came to the distribution of social goods through welfare policies. Mayank Mishra, in an article in the Business Standard in July 2016, looks at the welfare benefits given by the two regimes, arguing that in its two terms (between 2004 and 2014), the UPA benefitted 200 million people through its social policies whereas the NDA targeted 260 million people in half the time through its flagship programmes such as Housing for All, Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Mudra Yojana, and two insurance schemes for financial inclusion.

 

In various post-poll surveys conducted by Lokniti-CSDS, voters were asked whether they or someone in their household had availed the benefits of government schemes. Table 1 gives the numbers of the beneficiaries of various social policies of the NDA and UPA during their respective regimes. The data indicates that those schemes launched by the UPA I reached far more beneficiaries than those in its second term. In the first term, 41% of the surveyed households claimed to have availed the benefits of the mid-day meal scheme; on the other hand, a little more than one fourth made the same claim about NREGA. One in every five surveyed households said that they had used the pension scheme and almost the same proportion of farmers said they benefited from farm loan waiver schemes. Only 14% were helped by the national health insurance scheme launched in April 2008. During the second term of the UPA, the number of beneficiaries either remained the same or declined.

TABLE 1

Beneficiaries of the Various Schemes Launched by UPA and NDA

Scheme launched by NDA in its first tenure 2014-2019

Scheme launched by UPA in its second tenure 2009-2014

Scheme launched by UPA in its first tenure 2004-2009

 

Launch year

% of household

 

Launch year

% of household

 

Launch year

% of household

Ujjwala Yojana

May 2016

34

National Rural

Feb 2006

26

Mid-day meal***

 

41

     

Guarantee Act**

         

Jan Dhan Yojana

August 2014

22

National Rural

April 2005

22

National Rural

Feb 2006

26

     

Health Mission**

   

Guarantee Act**

   

PM Awas Yojana

June 2015

21

Indira Gandhi

Jan 2004

17

Indira Gandhi

Jan 2004

21

     

Pension Scheme

   

Pension Scheme

   

Ayushman Bharat

Sept 2018

17

Indira/Rajiv Awas

1985/

15

Farmer Loan Waiver*

Feb 2008

20

     

Yojna

June 2009

       

PM Kisan Yojana*

Feb 2019

17

...

...

...

National Health Insurance Scheme

April 2018

14

*Only farmers; **Only rural sample; ***Originally launched in 1995 for primary school children but in October 2007 upper school students were also included. Source: Lokniti-CSDS.

On the other hand, the NDA government under the banner of Narendra Modi has initiated several inclusive schemes such as Ujjwala, PM Awas Yojna, Ayushman Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojna and PM Kisan Yojna. The Ujjwala scheme, launched in May 2016, was the party’s first step towards the empowerment of women through the distribution of free LPG connections, and has benefited one third of the surveyed households. After gaining power in 2014, the NDA government had launched Jan Dhan Yojna in August 2014. Under this scheme, bank accounts were opened with no minimum balance requirement in an attempt to include those who could not afford the banking system. Through this scheme, people could get government subsidies and other cash transfers directly into their bank accounts. This helped in reducing delays in payments and leakage in availing of services. In the recent survey, a few more than one fifth of respondents said that they had availed the benefit of Jan Dhan Yojana and a similar proportion said the same for PM Awas Yojana. When compared with the UPA’s housing scheme, it appears that the NDA’s housing policies benefitted more people.

 

The NDA’s agricultural scheme, Pradhan Mantri Kisan Yojana benefited only 17% of farmers. It was announced two months ahead of the Lok Sabha election in February 2019 in response to the farmers agitation held in November 2018, when thousands of farmers marched to Parliament to highlight the agrarian crisis and demand higher crop prices, full loan waivers and drought relief. The farmers’ discontent was clearly visible in the survey as more than 60% of farmers in NES 2019 post-poll survey said that they did not always get the right price for their crop. Of these, 32% stated they got it sometimes, 17% said it happened rarely and 14% said they never got the right price.

Another selling point of the Modi government in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections was its flagship healthcare scheme, Ayushman Bharat. It aimed to provide health insurance of up to five lakh rupees per year to every poor family. Though only 17% of the respondents in the survey reported to have benefited from the scheme, it is important to consider the fact that the scheme was launched in September 2018, leaving little time for it to be properly implemented. On the other hand, UPA I had also launched the National Health Insurance scheme in the fourth year of its term but reached only 14% of the respondent of the 2009 post-poll survey.

The survey also asked which of the NDA schemes voters liked best. Close to 60% of the respondents (56%) chose not to answer to this question. For those who did respond, the highest proportion of 7% chose Ujjwala Yojana, followed by Swachh Bharat Mission, Jan Dhan Yojna, PM Awas Yojna and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao. Most schemes were drafted to provide socio-economic security to the poor and weaker sections of society. In line with this, the Lokniti-CSDS data shows that beneficiaries mainly belonged to the villages, and were part of scheduled castes or scheduled tribes. This indicates that government to some extent, successfully delivered the welfare services to its target population. Keeping this in mind, in the next section we discuss the impact of social policies launched by the government on electoral outcomes.

 

To see the impact of the social policies on voting behaviour, we compared the data from 2014 and 2019 post-poll surveys. In 2014, people assessed the policies launched by the UPA government and in 2019 people answered in terms of those launched by the BJP-led NDA government. According to Table 2, in 2014, most of the credit for the central government’s schemes was given to the state governments, while in 2019, people primarily gave credit to the Centre. In our view, a higher credit attribution to the central government might be happening as the BJP was also the incumbent party in most states and the advertisement of these schemes on public platforms was done around Prime Minister Modi.

TABLE 2

Credit for Schemes and Voting for the Incumbent Government

Schemes launched by NDA during 2014-2019

Who would you give the credit to ... (%)

Vote for NDA among....(%)

Schemes launched by UPA during 2009-2014

Who would you give the credit to ... (%)

Vote for UPA among ... (%)

 

Central govt.

State govt.

Beneficiaries

Non-beneficiaries

 

Central govt.

State govt.

Beneficiaries

Non-beneficiaries

                   

Ujjwala Yojana

71

14

49

42`

Indira/Rajiv Awas Yojna

22

50

24

24

Jan DhanYojana

71

13

50

43

MGNREGA**

27

41

21

25

PM Awas Yojana

51

32

46

44

NRHM**

20

53

26

23

Ayushman Bharat

53

30

47

44

Pension Scheme

19

54

25

22

PM Kisan Yojana*

44

38

51

44

...

...

...

...

...

* Only farmers; ** Only rural sample. Source: Lokniti-CSDS.

 

In 2014 the voting preferences of beneficiaries of the UPA schemes were not very different from non-beneficiaries. On the other hand, in 2019 the NDA got the advantage among the beneficiaries, especially among the those who availed of PM Kisan Yojana, followed by Ujjwala and Jan Dhan Yojana (Table 2). The Ujjwala scheme was particularly effective for this, as a much higher proportion of women beneficiaries voted for the NDA compared to the non-beneficiaries (47% vis-a-vis 41%).

 

Although PM Kisan Yojna had not reached most farmers, the BJP did have an advantage among those who had benefitted from it. Of those who availed the benefits, 51% voted for the NDA. More specifically, of those who credited the central government, 63% voted for the NDA. Among those who credited the state government, the figures were almost the same for both (UPA 30%, NDA 29%). Another important point to note is that 68% of the farmers reported being satisfied with the performance of the BJP-led NDA government, 27% of whom were fully satisfied and 41% somewhat satisfied.

 

The BJP undoubtedly had an upper hand among beneficiaries, but the Lokniti-CSDS post-poll survey shows that welfare schemes were not even an issue that was critical to voting behaviour in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In total only 1% of respondents stated that welfare schemes were the biggest issue for them, a statistic that was further divided into central government and state welfare schemes. For the majority of respondents (14%), development was the most important issue, which was followed by unemployment, for 11% of the respondents. This shows that other factors played a much bigger role in the NDA’s spectacular victory. However, it is also true that people have different concerns at the time of voting than they do after the elections (Politics and Society between Elections Report, 2017).

During the 2014 Lok Sabha election, issues such as corruption and price rise were the top priorities for many while voting; but when a study was conducted between the elections in the states, people stated basic infrastructure such as health, education and employment as the key issue. Similarly, during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections people shifted their focus from micro issues to macro issues such as development. A pre-poll survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS indicated that the 2019 election would be an ‘issue-less election’ (Lokniti Team 2019). Citizens have different expectations from the government between elections, and consider other factors while voting. Does this indicate that other factors overshadow voters’ political preferences while voting?

 

To understand this phenomenon, we estimated two regression models to study the impact of various factors – in the first model, the dependent variable is taken to be the vote share for the UPA in 2009 (UPA’s re-election) and in the second model, it is vote share for the NDA (NDA’s re-election). The explanatory variables are schemes launched by the government during their respective tenure (1st tenure), preference for the incumbent PM to be re-elected – Manmohan Singh in 2009 (only 17% preferred Manmohan Singh in 2009) and Narendra Modi in 2019 (Modi was preferred by 47% of the respondents), the perception on the inclusivity of overall development.

We controlled for demographic factors such as caste/community of the voters, and their economic class in the models. The results indicate that in 2009, the effect of schemes such as NREGA, mid-day meal and health insurance scheme was not highly significant. The beneficiaries of NREGA were more likely to vote for UPA than other parties, whereas the mid-day meal scheme did not yield a positive vote for UPA, as non-beneficiaries of this scheme were more likely to vote for UPA as compared to beneficiaries.

On the other hand, in terms of the schemes launched by the Modi government, Ujjwala, Jan Dhan and to some extent Awaas Yojna were statistically significant. The perception of development also determined electoral behaviour. In both models, if voters believed that development during the regime was inclusive, they were more likely to vote for the incumbent government.

 

To summarize, the beneficiaries of most flagship schemes in 2019 were more in favour of giving the incumbent another chance than the non-beneficiaries. The UPA I did not manage to garner the votes of the beneficiaries of its schemes. This was perhaps because state governments (in many states there were non-UPA governments) got most of the credit for central schemes, whereas during the NDA regime, voters were able to make a clear distinction while giving credit. One possible explanation for this could be that before the 2019 election, most states had NDA governments, so the issue of credit attribution was negligible. It also would have helped that the Modi’s government successfully advertised its schemes.

These welfare schemes were not, however, solely responsible for the big victory of the NDA. Factors such as leadership (NDA under Modi’s name); anti-minority sentiment; the notion of nationalism; and perceived distribution of development coincided with welfare politics, which made the results of the 2019 elections.

 

Footnotes:

1. The Zero Hunger programme was launched by President of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in 2003.

2. A similar study was conducted by Ana L. De La O on conditional cash transfers (CCT) in Mexico. She too found a positive relationship between the CCT scheme and electoral returns, suggesting that the targeted programme led to an increase in voter turnout and incumbent vote shares.

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