Why did Karnataka's economic prosperity fail to influence the nature of electoral promises made by political parties in the run-up to the assembly elections? asks A K Bhattacharya.
The election manifestos of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress and the Janata Dal-Secular and their campaign rhetoric indicate how the Karnataka assembly elections herald the start of a nearly year-long period of hectic political activity in the country, with four more major state assembly elections to be held in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana in the next few months, and finally the general elections to be held in 2024.
The obvious question is: What message do the Karnataka assembly elections convey about the likely nature of the electoral battle that lies ahead?
An exercise to find an answer to that question should begin with an examination of the electoral promises made by the BJP and the Congress in their political manifestos, released before the Karnataka elections.
The most striking aspect of these manifestos is their emphasis on the promise of welfarist measures.
While the BJP focused on food security, social welfare, education, health, development and income support schemes, the Congress manifesto went a step further by announcing five guaranteed welfare schemes.
Thus, if the BJP promised free supply of three cooking gas cylinders to all families below the poverty line (BPL), housing schemes, and concessional food, the Congress plans to increase the job reservation ceiling for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, and Other Backward Classes, apart from restoring job reservation for Muslims.
Similarly, the BJP assured increased insurance coverage for BPL families and the Congress promised to strengthen primary health centres in the state.
The list of welfarist measures announced in the BJP and Congress manifestos is quite long.
But the notable element here is that such concessional schemes and job reservations have continued to emerge as prominent features of the manifestos, despite Karnataka being one of the economically better-off states in the country.
This phenomenon deserves to be studied.
Karnataka's Economic Survey states that its per capita income was over Rs 3 lakh in 2022-2023, which, in dollar terms and on a purchasing-power-parity basis, would be close to $13,000.
Karnataka's unemployment rate is down to 2.7 per cent, much lower than that in all of India, its labour force participation rate at about 57 per cent is far ahead of the national average, and the size of its economy is over 8 per cent of India's gross domestic product, or GDP.
From an economic point of view, these data sets would rank Karnataka as one of the top states in the country.
There will, of course, be a few pockets of poverty in Karnataka, but the overall level of prosperity should have made the economic pitch in the election manifestos of these political parties a little different from what is usually seen during elections in relatively backward states like Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh.
The manifestos for Karnataka seem to be a victim of the political parties' marked predilection for offering freebies.
Why did Karnataka's economic prosperity fail to influence the course and nature of electoral promises made by political parties in the run-up to the assembly elections?
Why did even the BJP, whose central leadership had frowned upon the politics of freebies a few months ago, rely on supplying free cooking gas cylinders or food at a subsidised price?
Why have political parties in Karnataka not recognised that economic aspirations in a relatively rich state should be less about free basic goods and more about creating opportunities and facilities through improved access to top-class health care and educational infrastructure?
Why haven't political parties in the state taken advantage of its economic prosperity in the last few years and pushed the electoral agenda to substantially upgrade the living standards and growth opportunities for the people?
These are deeply troubling questions.
The obsession with handout politics is now a disease that afflicts the national political discourse, irrespective of the actual state of economic prosperity or deprivation.
The Centre's decision in December 2022 to make food grain supplies free for an estimated 810 million beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) for a year was a clear indication that the move was inspired by electoral considerations.
It's true that the move had also meant the discontinuation of the free food scheme under the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana, started in March 2020, and therefore had secured for the Centre some savings on subsidy.
But it was also clear that making free the food grain to be supplied under the public distribution system until December 2023 would have given the ruling BJP electoral benefits, as nine state assembly elections were due to be held in 2023-2024, followed by the general elections.
The possibility of extending the free food grain scheme under the NFSA by a few more months is quite strong.
Both the BJP and the Congress offered a plethora of welfarist schemes for voters in Karnataka, despite it being a relatively rich state.
That such schemes would be in plenty in the other forthcoming assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Telangana should, therefore, be a foregone conclusion.
What this also means is that the financial burden on account of these welfarist schemes would increase for these states, dealing a big blow to their fiscal health.
This is not to argue that there should be no welfare measures for economically underprivileged sections of society.
But, as the Karnataka elections have shown, the tendency among political parties to dole out such free food and free cooking gas cylinders, irrespective of need or merit, has risen to a fiscally unsustainable level, without raising any eyebrows either at the Centre or in the state administration.
Karnataka could afford to finance these schemes because it has the resources and has the ability to fund them.
But this does not augur well for the finances of other states without a similar level of economic prosperity.
The BJP's promise of implementing the Uniform Civil Code and the National Register of Citizens would become politically controversial, just as the Congress manifesto endorsing legal action against groups like the Bajrang Dal and the Popular Front of India have already become a contentious campaign issue.
The adverse impact of such campaigns on society is inevitable.
But there is no doubt that such unrestrained doling out of welfarist measures even in an economically prosperous state like Karnataka would have a deleterious impact on its finances.
Worse, the many states, where elections would be held in the next few months, could now make the same mistake.