What Are Some of the Key Economic Lessons Learnt from West Bengal-Kerala’s Electoral Results*…
*This is written for The Wire and the published link is accessible from here..
The electoral success of Mamata Banerjee’s TMC in West Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan’s LDF in Kerala mark a critical junction in the state of Indian politics today. Not only have both of these grassroot leaders, belonging to regional parties, stopped the BJP from coming to power in their respective states, they have also shown a way to offer some key economic policy lessons that are vital in building a strong political and economic opposition against the BJP- at a national level too.
Compared to Kerala where the BJP couldn’t manage to win a single assembly seat this time, in West Bengal, the party won around 77 seats (taking a lot of its vote share from the LEFT+ other opposition parties). In Bengal’s highly polarized election, despite all the national hype, an absurd amount of spending in campaign money, the BJP still couldn’t defeat the incumbent TMC. Mamata’s TMC is likely to have won the state by a bigger margin than the last assembly election. While in Kerala, for the first time in four decades, an incumbent party-and its leader- has won the state-election again.
What does it say about the success of both parties and its leadership?
The answer to this may lie in both states’ political-economy performance: in the persistent pursuit of pro-people, welfare-measures allowing voters-irrespective of geography (rural-urban), class, caste, ethnicity, gender-to vote in large numbers for incumbent leaders.
The hawa created by the BJP’s campaign chariot couldn’t pierce through the solid foundations of a state economy built around principles of deliberative redistribution and a robust social safety net for its most vulnerable.
In West Bengal, recent data shows how the state’s “rural purchasing power (measured through household consumption data) was higher than the national average over the last decade i.e. when TMC was in power, even though, it’s decadal growth rate (at 4.9%) was lower than the national average (at 5.5%)”.
Even though urban consumption patterns didn’t rise in proportion to the national household consumption average more than 72% of its population and voters reside in rural areas, who now voted for the TMC. On poverty too, despite low-growth levels, West Bengal did well over last decade, as “poverty rate in the state fell to 14% compared to the national average where poverty rate went up to 23%”.
In sharing and interpreting these results, Maitreesh Ghatak of London School of Economics explains how “despite the state’s lack of ‘economic dynamism’, the rate of growth of purchasing power in rural areas of West Bengal has been higher than the national average. This could be partly due to state government’s various transfer programmes such as the Kanyashree or Krishak Bandhu or Yuvashree…”
Success of rural-based welfare programmes did indeed allow women voters to drive Mamata Banerjee’s TMC to electoral success, along with rest of social groups in economically vulnerable categories (minorities, dalits, tribal communities). A vote share of more than 50% for TMC against the BJP and other opposition parties would otherwise not be possible, if all these groups didn’t vote together in favour of the incumbent.
On welfare schemes, TMC government increased spending during its term over the last decade. State Budget 2020–21 announced that persons aged 60 and not covered under any pension scheme belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes shall get a monthly pension of ₹1,000. The new pension scheme is expected to cover 2.5 million beneficiaries, with an allocation of ₹3,000 crore. In 2019, the state announced also a Krishak Bandhu scheme, its own version of the federal PM-Kisan cash transfer scheme, which offers ₹5,000 a year to 7.2 million farmers and landless share-croppers.
The state also has a scheme to provide free electricity for the poor under the Karma Sathi Prakalpa scheme, 100,000 unemployed youth provided subsidised entrepreneurship loans of up to ₹2 lakh, with the budget allocating ₹500 crore for it. Though, with a caveat to this, creating organised jobs with decent social security for its population has been the main challenge for the TMC government and will continue to be so in its time ahead (it is also a national level problem).
In Kerala too, Pinarayi Vijayan’s electoral success was built around his government’s ‘pro-people’ policies that helped the state battle a pandemic’s wrath -Kerala was one of the worst affected states during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, a natural disaster (floods in last August) while making sustained public investments in healthcare, social-protection, and immediate disaster response-rehabilitation.
In its social and economic performance, Kerala has always done well in comparison to most other states, especially those in the north where the BJP has had a strong electoral foothold. Kerala has outdid others in implementation of family planning practices, in performance of basic health indicators like life expectancy, infant mortality rate, maternal mortality, neo natal care etc and on gender-performance developmental indicators too.
Based on the last census data the state has the lowest decadal population growth (4.9%), the highest female-male sex population ratio (number of females/1000 males: 1084) as compared to other Indian states. The state also has one of the highest proportions of GSDP spending on areas of education, health and other social-welfare related expenditures.
What’s interesting to note in context to both West Bengal and Kerala is how, despite low state-level growth performances (in comparison to the national average) they have done well in improving the lives of those in the economically vulnerable category (those in the minority and of lower class-caste) and over time increase their purchasing power.
Better implemented land-reforms, localized schemes of conditional income transfers, and a better functioning price-rationing system for ensuring basic nutritional supplies, made access to basic nutrition, housing, healthcare and education more affordable to the general population (including those who migrated to the state from other states). More importantly, those in rural areas realized the actual benefits of these steps.
State governments, whether TMC or LDF, did well to identify and realize the needs-and interests of the society, while consciously moving away from projecting the paradoxes of a classical neo-liberal policy trap- the adoption of which widened both economic and social inequities in many Indian states including the high growth performing states of Gujarat, Maharashtra (to name a few) over the last decade.
We see horrible repercussions of that today when states like Gujarat and Maharashtra’s healthcare system are observed to be severely stressed even after a year of the pandemic. Each of these states under-invested in public health, education, and in social welfare measures. Poverty, preexisting social inequities further accentuated from a neoliberal economic policy pursuit for decades, giving way to a ‘false’ politics of aspiration -disconnected from actual realities, coalesced around an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ identity-based polarization and majoritarian assertion with less regard for people’s welfare.
Building a consensus for a national level political and economic opposition to such politics may therefore draw upon vital lessons from the success of grassroot based welfare politics of Mamata Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan. They both show how: Deliberative redistribution anchored in an economic policy system working for and in the interests of the poor and most vulnerable are part of a successful counter punch to BJP’s centralized national politics of authoritarian populism being practiced sans a robust welfarist policy outlook.