For many months now, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP’s) attack on the opposition for what he called a ‘Revdi culture' or a culture of freebies, essentially accusing the Congress and other parties of making irresponsible promises to garner votes. Modi said freebies were “dangerous” and hampered the nation’s development.
The issue had become so serious that it reached the doors of the Supreme Court and even the Election Commission weighed in, even though it has no business to do so. The criticism of freebie politics sparked a huge debate over what constitutes a freebie and what is welfare politics in a country like India, where the poor still depend so much on the government for subsidies.
Which is why it was amusing to see this debate over freebies or Revdis disappear last week, when the Prime Minister announced that a free food grain scheme for the poor under his government at the centre will be extended for the next five years.
The double standards are astounding. The scheme was started by the Congress under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2013, in which three fourth’s of rural India and half of the urban population were entitled to cheaper food grain for 3 years.
Political realities for BJP
The BJP took that further by making the scheme totally free during the pandemic, which was the right thing to do at the time given how badly people suffered with lockdowns.
Modi’s decision to extend this free grain scheme by 5 years won’t be cheap. It will cost the government approximately 11 lakh crore Rupees. It impacts about 80 crore poor people.
The opposition, lead by the Congress, have been quick to attack the Modi government, saying that the extension of the scheme reflects how many people in India continue to live in poverty, despite the government’s claims. They have also said the announcement in the middle of the campaign for the assembly elections to 5 states is a violation of the model code of conduct and an attempt to influence voters.
I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the Election Commission to take note, but that is a topic for another column. The fact that this free food grain scheme has been extended by 5 more years reflects some important political realities for the BJP.
Not a cakewalk
The first is that next year’s general election may not be a cakewalk for the BJP, especially at a time when the opposition has played up the caste card through the demand for a caste census. The BJP leadership knows it has to pull out all the stops.
Home Minister Amit Shah broke the BJP’s silence on a caste census this week, where he treaded carefully, saying his party was not opposed to a census while at the same time accusing Nitish Kumar and his government in Bihar of misrepresenting the numbers of Yadavs and Muslims in their survey — a clear attempt to create a wedge between communities and to woo OBCs or Other Backward Castes.
The extension of the free food grain scheme, long after the pandemic is over, reflects the unease in the BJP camp about 2024. It also underlines that welfare politics is very much a part of its campaign strategy.
Much of Modi’s victory in 2019 had to do not just with the BJP’s Hindutva base but also the party’s emphasis on welfare schemes for the poor and for poor women. The biggest issue this time however could end up being the caste census.
The opposition has decided to make this their central point, and the longer the BJP refuses to take a clear stand on this, the more they can hurt if OBC voters start turning.
Data compiled by the CSDS Lokniti shows that the BJP’s voteshare among OBCs has been rising over the years, at least for the Lok Sabha polls.
From 22 per cent in 2009 to 34 per cent in 2014 and to 44 per cent in 2019. Which is why this vote base is so crucial and which is why Modi will pull out all the stops, with more cards up his sleeve.