Did Lack Of Freebies And 'Revdis' Dent The Modi Vote This Time? Not Really

R Jagannathan

Jun 12, 2024, 11:25 AM | Updated 01:18 PM IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi
  • Freebies matter, but other issues bugging the voter may sometimes matter more.
  • The proposition, that good economics should lead to good political outcomes, can never have a definitive answer. Reason: it all depends on the short-term mood of the voter.

    In elections marked by the lack of any significant wave for or against some party (or parties), many things matter — from anti-incumbency sentiment to poor caste or candidate selections, or even religious polarisation. Scattering freebies may help tilt the balance. But they may also not do so.

    The question is whether the Narendra Modi government’s decision to offer no freebies (beyond a report card on past performance) ahead of the Lok Sabha election cost him an easy route to majority. 

    From the negative comments being showered on Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman for offering an interim budget sans freebies, unlike the one presented by Piyush Goyal in 2019, it would appear that many people think that good politics calls for bad economics, at least ahead of an election.

    We need to examine this proposition in some depth to actually arrive at some understanding.

    But before that we need to clear up the calumny against the Finance Minister, who has been one of the most prudent, and yet, most reform-oriented ministers in North Block.

    The claim that Sitharaman did nothing for the middle-class is baloney, for just one measure — the new income tax regime — effectively offers the possibility of tax-free incomes upto Rs 7.5 lakh per annum (including rebate and standard deduction), provided no deductions are claimed. This means higher tax-free incomes and/or higher take-home incomes compared to those paying rates under the old schemes. 

    So let us not focus on the middle class, and instead on the poor. Did the BJP pay a price for not showering freebies and 'revdis' on the poor? 

    The BJP lost votes and seats in the Hindi belt, especially in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra.

    On the other hand, it gained seats in Odisha, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, held on to its assembly election gains in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, did fairly well in Karnataka and Bihar, and gained vote shares in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

    In Telangana, the fact that the new Congress government of Revanth Reddy had not yet doled out its guarantees may have helped the BJP, but, then, even if the latter had promised the moon it would have been nothing more than a promise that may (or may not) be kept, since that would have depended on the BJP coming to power in Telangana on its own. 

    This mixed results picture suggests that freebies alone may not have turned the tide in the BJP’s favour.

    In Karnataka, the Congress party’s 'guarantees' helped it win the assembly elections last year, but the mood changed just a year later. In Telangana, where too the guarantees were on offer, the BJP equalled the Congress’s seat count.

    It is only in Andhra Pradesh, where Chandrababu Naidu made many rash promises in a resource-deficit state, including cash doles of Rs 1,500 to women, free bus rides and three free gas cylinders annually, that freebies probably worked.

    Even so, one must ask whether the anger against the YSR Congress regime was not the tilting factor that set off a political tsunami against Jagan Mohan Reddy.

    Now let’s shift the gaze to the areas where the BJP lost traction.

    In Maharashtra, despite aligning with two regional parties — the Shiv Sena led by Eknath Shinde and the Maratha-dominated Nationalist Congress Party of Ajit Pawar — the BJP alliance lost many seats.

    The real issues here seem to have been the strong sentiment against the breakaway factions that aligned with the BJP, and not necessarily the lack of freebies, though there was rural distress.

    In Rajasthan, it was the alienation of Jats, Rajputs and Meenas that cost the BJP some seats, and in Haryana, the Jats ganged up against the BJP after being left out in the cold for two terms. But in all these areas, another factor that dented the BJP was the Agniveer scheme, which reduced job options for youth to serve in the regular armed forces. Lack of freebies never turned up as an election issue here.

    In Rajasthan, the unceremonious sidelining of Vasundhara Raje after the BJP won the election could have cost the BJP some seats, especially as she was replaced by a man with very little local traction.

    Now contrast these states with Bihar, the poorest state in India and where freebies really should count. Here the BJP, even after aligning with an allegedly weaker Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), mauled the INDI Alliance. In Jharkhand, the damage to the BJP seems to have come from sympathy for its incarcerated Chief Minister, Hemant Soren.

    Also consider Odisha, where Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal already had good farm doles on offer, and still suffered defeat.

    Which brings us to Uttar Pradesh, the BJP’s former crown jewel, the backbone of its national dominance. Why did the party almost halve its number of seats from 2019, despite having given the people a Ram Mandir, some economic growth, and a strong administration under Yogi Adityanath.

    The simple answer may be that the BJP, and its national and regional leaders, including Modi and Adityanath, lost the election because they managed to ignore their own base. Both Modi and Adityanath are mass leaders, but they also tend to talk directly to voters and less to their own karyakartas and core support base.

    Then there was also the presumption that Modi was anyway going to return to power, and many of the faithful chose to sulk in their tents. The Muslim consolidation that was happening across the state should have resulted in a counter-consolidation among Hindus, but when your own karyakartas are miffed, that is not easy to pull off.

    It is doubtful if freebies alone would have reversed this tide of internal resentment and anti-incumbency sentiment.

    The only freebie that may have mattered, in the context of general farm distress after a bad monsoon year, would have been more cash doles to farmers, as was done in 2019 with the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi.

    But Adityanath offered a good deal on sugarcane prices before the elections, and that can hardly have gone unnoticed by at least a segment of farmers.

    The odds are that the results would not have been too different even if Modi and Sitharaman had used the last budget to woo voters with more subsidies and revdis, more than those already given under the Modi guarantees like 5 kg of free food, gas cylinder subsidies under Ujjwala, et al.  

    Freebies matter, but other issues bugging the voter may sometimes matter more.

    Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.

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