The Congress won in Karnataka though the BJP held on to its vote share. The Congress added five per cent to get to just under 43 per cent vote share and the BJP lost just 0.2 per cent, to get 36 per cent. How did the Congress increase its popularity? It can be many things, but “anti-incumbency” is not among them. Why not? Because the BJP retained the level of its popularity and attracted the same number of voters (in fact more, given the population increase in five years) than it did in 2018. There is a reason for this, and we will come to that later. And if it was not anti-incumbency, what was it?
There are two things the Congress itself says were important. The five schemes they promised and the Bharat Jodo Yatra. Let us focus on the former. The five schemes are 200 units of free electricity per month; Rs 2,000 to every woman head of a household; unemployment benefit for two years of Rs 3,000 per month (to graduates without a job) and Rs 1,500 per month (to diploma holders); 10 kilos of free rice per person to families identified as being below the poverty line; and free bus travel for all women in state buses.
These were the main ones but there were others. ASHA workers, who are the frontline health workers in rural areas, would get a fixed salary of Rs 5,000 per month, mid-day meal cooks and anganwadi workers would get an extra Rs 2,400 to Rs 3,500 per month. Police personnel on night duty would get an extra Rs 5,000 per month, plus an extra month’s pay. While the rest of us may not have known about this, it’s unlikely that many of these people, particularly those working together, would be unaware. There are 65,000 anganwadis in the state. There are one lakh policemen.
If a woman is a household maid in Bengaluru, she will get from now on get Rs 2,000, Rs 1,200 (the cost of a monthly bus pass) and 10 kilos of rice, besides the electricity. This is a substantial sum and will make a difference to her life.
Economic analyst Aunindyo Chakravarty has pointed out that the state’s average per capita monthly income is Rs 22,000, but it is quite unequal. Over 60 per cent of the population makes only Rs 13,800 per month. Consider what these guarantees mean to such people.
And we have to, most importantly, also consider what the meaning of these schemes is, and it is of course contrary to what the Government of India is saying. We have a problem, and it can be defined as the questions for which these five schemes are for many the answer. The Centre can dismiss India’s fall in the hunger index, but clearly the idea of free grain is meaningful to a substantial part of the population. There are two indicators on unemployment in India. One is compiled by the government. The other one, by the private firm CMIE, says that India has high unemployment, which has not gone below six per cent in five years, but also a poor participation rate. People who are unable to find a job, or a job of the sort that they want (graduates do not want to be delivery boys and taxi drivers) stop looking for work entirely. Even the government data here says that graduate joblessness nationwide is 15 per cent. The participation of Indian women in the labour force is one of the lowest in the world. This has several reasons, including social, but safe, regular and inexpensive transport is surely among them.
To accept all of the above we would have to conclude that hunger, poverty and unemployment are serious issues in India in 2023. But this is not what the Central government is saying, and in fact it rejects data and opinion which claims there is a problem. Which part of the Narendra Modi government’s narrative of “Amrit Kaal”, “Vishwa Guru” and all the rest of it responds to the things that seem to have brought the Congress success in Karnataka? The BJP and its supporters sneer at what they say is the culture of “revadi”. That is extremely demeaning to the individuals who are its recipients, but the term is used nonetheless. It is fundamentally wrong to call these things “freebies”. Human beings do not want to see themselves or be seen as being helpless. In civilised nations, these things and many more are called entitlements, because they are. The poor are entitled to these things from the State.
The readers of this newspaper and what we call the middle class will not be enthused by the idea of queuing up for free rice or by 200 units of free power. These are not things that we vote on. Indeed, one reason, to return to where we began, that the BJP held on to its vote share was that its base is loyal because of ideology. And this base is stronger in urban areas and with the middle class and upper castes as we know. This lot is the one for whom the Vande Bharat Express (executive fare for Mysuru to Chennai Rs 2,295) trains are being launched, providing solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist.