West Bengal Panchayat Elections: No Free Lunches From Now On

Sunil Ray, Abhijit Ghosh

The trouble begins when dystopian politics is rationalised by the ruling authorities to ensure that the delusion of development through the doling out of freebies is sustained.

Freebies are valorised as development instruments by ruling parties in India. However, the story is different in real life. While their marginal impact on the lives of the poor is undeniable, their purpose is to mould the electorates’ behaviour in favour of the ruling party. This is what rural Bengal has been witnessing ever since the Trinamul Congress came to power. The project has paid political dividends for the ruling party. But the question before the forthcoming panchayat election is this: will this project be successful in influencing the voting behaviour of the poor in rural Bengal?

The situation, as it exists now, is full of chaos and complexities. On the one hand, retaliatory politics along with a tinge of communal violence is dominant. The allegations of corruption, on the other hand, seem to have unsettled political nerves as well.

How did the problems start?

Trouble begins when dystopian politics is rationalised by the ruling regime. This is done to ensure that the delusion of development through the doling out of freebies is sustained. Countless freebies are laid out by the state government for vulnerable or disadvantaged communities.

These help in projecting the ruling party as a messiah of the poor. However, corruption in the system of delivery of freebies has social costs and leads to a rise in unrest. The exclusion of genuine beneficiaries results in the community of the poor losing its cohesiveness, weakening it further in the game of accessing political patronage. The class conflict, in turn, gets reduced to conflicts among the poor who are divided into two segments: losers and gainers.

Freebies are fundamentally different from welfare schemes. They are not public or merit goods like education and healthcare. Economists justify State welfare schemes on the grounds that they help the majority of the people and offer a balm against economic distress that is the result of market failure. These measures also contribute greatly to human development. Freebies, on the contrary, have nothing to do with long-term development. Nevertheless, the patrons of freebies conflate them with merit goods and argue that they have the same development implications for the poor. The purpose, evidently, is to mask the real intention of the ruling party which is to influence the electorate to cast its vote in the latter’s favour.

Read more from IMPRI: https://www.impriindia.com/insights/ray-sunil-india-unemployment-rates/

Solutions related to the delivery of freebies

But how does one discount the ill effects of such non-economic factors? Social tension growing out of unequal access to freebies outweighs the positive impact of this so-called welfare. Yet some economists continue to believe that the delivery of freebies would boost the effective demand of the economy at the aggregate level, causing an expansion of the home market. This is a naïve argument inspired by Keynesian benevolence that appears to have a limited multiplier effect in the present economic context.

The people of Bengal, especially the poor and the economically vulnerable, are thus left with a false development narrative. This is so because the structural transformation of the rural economy by way of ensuring sustainable employment and income generation has been substituted by freebies. The development debate is, therefore, diverted from structural transformation towards the doling out of freebies. In a market economy like India’s, freebies are the easiest way of influencing the electorate.

Freebies have nothing much to do with the real development of the poor. Tangible development of the poor in particular and the development of the rural economy, in general, would expose the politics of freebies and extricate Bengal from false development narratives that have pushed back the state’s economy, culture and society.

The article was first published in The Telegraph Online as Against free lunches on 4th July 2023.

Read more about the authors:

Prof Sunil Ray is the Former Director of A. N. Sinha Institute of Social Studies, Patna. He is currently the Advisor at CDECS and IMPRI.

Prof.Abhijit Ghosh teaches economics at Mahatma Gandhi College, Purulia.

Read more articles by these authors: Development Delusions and The Forthcoming 2023 Panchayat Election In Bengal and Factors Behind Access to Latrine in India: An Application of Multinomial Logistic Regression Model.