The beginnings of a genuine welfare state?

State and central elections have their different dynamics, but the outcome of the Delhi elections could still lay the seeds of an Indian welfare state such as Clement Attlee created in Britain on the basis of the report by the Liberal economist William Beveridge whose father was a rebellious 19th century Bengal civilian and mother a Calcutta educationist. On the other hand, it could also reinforce the system of bribery with voters expecting more and more gifts from the cornucopia of official largesse. 

Such allurements bring to mind a long-forgotten Bengali novel called Swarnalata by Taraknath Gangopadhyay, published in 1874, whose tattered English translation I found in a trunk in a rooftop junk room. The scene I recall is of two ambitious village youths discussing their future. One considered joining the Brahmo Samaj to marry an educated Brahmo (tautology?) lady, probably a schoolmistress. The other youth’s vision soared higher for he had heard that the padre sahib had promised a Christian bibi to any Bengali who converted. I remember wondering — this was more than 70 years ago — whether the promised bride was a memsahib from England, an Anglo-Indian or merely what colonial English called a “Native Christian”. Both youths thought her the superior catch. 

Politics is also proselytising. Political leaders must convince voters which commitment would be more rewarding. It was interesting to see in this context that Arvind Kejriwal did not take on Narendra Modi directly. He didn’t criticise the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Article 370. Even though his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) opposed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, that was not the central theme of the contest. By ascribing his victory to “Lord Hanuman”, Kejriwal even made it possible for devout Hindus to vote against BJP candidates. That resolved the dilemma Karan Singh faced when he felt obliged to dismantle the Virat Hindu Samaj because people mistook it for a Sangh Parivar outfit.

The bigger question of voter motivation remains unanswered. Last August, the AAP announced free electricity of up to 200 units for domestic consumers. Last month, the Delhi chief minister improved on this scheme with the Mukhyamantri Kirayedar Bijli Meter Yojana which entitled tenants to also get free electricity. According to Kejriwal, some 1.4 million Delhi consumers who used less than 200 units received zero bills. The total number of beneficiaries is estimated at around 4.8 million. There’s also the water waiver scheme for over 1.05 million people in four categories who will enjoy waivers varying from 100 per cent to 25 per cent. A total of 1.3 million people with functional meters are expected to benefit while the government will earn Rs 600 crore with streamlined metered water connections.

Finally, the scheme that was flagged off on the occasion of bhai dhooj when female travellers were given pink slips for free rides in DTC and cluster buses. It’s not clear how many takers there are for this concession since only about 12 per cent of Delhi women above the age of 15 are employed against the national average of 15. One of the main reasons is safety. Long before the horrific episode of December 2012 and the Reuters Foundation’s 2014 finding that the Delhi transport system is the world’s fourth most dangerous for women, Shanti Swarup Dhavan, the then West Bengal’s governor, offended powerful folk by saying he would rather trust his daughter to a taxi in Calcutta than in Delhi.

Kejriwal calls his innovations “smart governance”. Smart they certainly are but gratitude can’t be taken for granted. Tincori Babu — whose surname I forget — comes to mind. I interviewed him for All India Radio on some anniversary connected with Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das. A bedridden but spry Tincori Babu told me giggling that although he was the Deshbandhu’s candidate for a crucial municipal election, he took advantage of a car offer by Deshbandhu’s cousin and political rival, S R Das, law member of the Viceroy’s Council and founder of the Doon School. There would have been nothing to stop a beneficiary of free electricity, water and bus travel voting for the BJP or Congress. If that didn’t happen, it may mean loyalty hasn’t altogether perished in politics. 

As for the taunt by the Haryana minister Anil Vij that “issues lost, freebies won" in this election, I would say that freebies are the issues. It is up to our politicians — including those in the Congress and the BJP — to ensure that Kejriwal’s initiative doesn’t result in institutionalising bribery for votes but promotes the reforms Beveridge called the "five giants on the road of reconstruction" to eliminate "Want… Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness". If that happens, we might be witnessing the beginnings of a genuine welfare state.

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