Source: Economic Times

 

It is now widely believed that welfare programmes and handouts have driven election results in the 2000s. This belief, no doubt, is driving the race for greater and greater giveaways both at the Centre and the states.

 

The Centre has gotten into the act for the next elections, with the latest item on its menu of schemes being the food security Bill. But will the welfare scheme deliver at the polls next year? No. For, voting behaviour is now being driven not just by promises and current conditions, but by expectations.

 

The voter has evolved from one till the 1990s who judged on the basis of what he currently had, steadily towards one who is evaluating on the basis of what he will get. That drove UP election results, that will drive the state elections in a few months, and that will also drive the impending parliamentary elections. In other words, electoral behaviour is no longer a quid pro quo between the electorate and the political entities, but one where preference is determined by credible promises leading to believable expectations.

 

And that is why when growth increases, promises are more credible and incumbents are rewarded. This is the story in state after state. As long as things can be expected to improve, all promises appear more credible and incumbency advantages rule.  The reverse is, of course, also true. When growth falls, as it is currently, promises will seem less credible, and so the food security Bill introduced at a time of falling growth will have limited positive spin-offs in the coming elections.

 

But that can be changed, more easily than many believe is possible. To underscore the point. Recall the early success of NREGA and how the expectation that it will expand, deepen and cover the country was made possible due to improving growth during the time. UPA-II is an outcome of that.

 

Limited Bandwidth

 

But, currently, not only is growth falling, so is investment. On the other side, the efficacy of welfare programmes is also not improving. Important programmes, such as the NREGA, are stagnating. All of this is sending a very important signal: the UPA's ability to deliver on the promises it is making and will make in the coming months is quite poor.

 

And this signal needs to change. Things may appear worse for the UPA. The government cannot do much about inflation, nor will it be able to do much about the growth this year, neither can the law and order conditions change for the better within a year.  Also, welfare will also have lower efficacy at the polls simply because the world, including the aam aadmi, knows that the government has little resources left. But there is an even bigger tool that can address all this and more.

 

Recall that the food security Bill was cleared with minimal debate. Or, for that matter, how the crime Bill amendment was cleared with even lesser deliberation. In both these cases, all that was required was a strong unequivocal message from Sonia and Rahul Gandhi. In both the cases, their advisors had assured them that poll results would be affected if they did not act decisively.

 

All Hands on Deck

 

Investment can be ramped up far more easily than many believe is possible. Stuck projects can be eased if ministers and ministries are forced to move the files. Construction projects can be accelerated. Road projects can be auctioned out within a few months. Internal trade can be opened fairly easily and will have its own investment consequences. The public sector can also quickly put in place much-needed expansion plans in areas ranging from energy to engineering. And these are merely a few items. Every ministry has some project files where it is the only hurdle left.

 

And, therefore, a strong and unequivocal message from the top: get rid of the hurdles that the UPA and Congress ministers themselves have put up. The response will be immediate. Projects getting cleared will automatically have a positive domino effect across the economy. Finally, as this activity picks up, automatically growth expectations will increase and so will the credibility of the government in delivering on its welfare promises. And, perhaps as important, the UPA shall finally be able to regain the growth and investment mantle from Narendra Modi.

 

The UPA-III is yet a possibility. But the days of old and tired cliches are gone. The electorate is changing rapidly in its awareness and expectations. It is willing to reward incumbents who deliver on their promises. And it judges them on the credibility of these promises. A year is still left and investment can be that most important tool for the otherwise seemingly lost battle for the UPA-III.

 

 (The writer heads Indicus Analytics)