Albert Hirschman published a landmark theory in 1973, where he explained people’s tolerance levels towards income inequality through the course of economic development. People are tolerant as long as they harbour hope of the disparity being bridged. The late American professor and one of the foremost development economists of 20th Century elaborated the theory with an example of a two-lane tunnel.
Assume you are struck in traffic, and the cars have not moved for a while. If the cars in another lane start moving, you feel better because you anticipate you would soon follow suit. That immediate hope, according to Hirschman, is the “Tunnel Effect”. The tunnel effect, or the honeymoon period, ends sooner or later. However, if the lane stuck in traffic can identify with the lane moving ahead, the tunnel effect has a longer shelf life, says Hirschman.
To adopt that analogy in daily politics, if people belonging to your class, caste or religion are seen to be part of a sort of a transformation, you tend to be more patient towards the process.
Hirschman’s Tunnel Effect has played a significant role in Narendra Modi’s success during the 2019 Lok Sabha election. There is no denying there was a wave of Hindutva, ultra-nationalism and his own personality cult. Many would like to reduce the mandate to these things. However, to ignore the contribution of welfare politics in his massive triumph would be dishonest and misleading.
I travelled through the Hindi heartland for three months ahead of the results on 23 May. It was impossible to not hear the paeans of Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, especially in rural areas, where the Opposition expected to make inroads using agrarian crisis and unemployment.
This is not to suggest every village in Bihar is electrified, or people no longer defecate in the open in Uttar Pradesh, or everyone in Chhattisgarh has a pucca house. I met families who benefited from these schemes. I met people who are waiting for the schemes to reach them. More importantly, those who have not yet availed of the schemes know it has reached their neighbourhoods. BJP being BJP has publicised the schemes better than they have enforced them, creating the perception among rural residents that they are not far from being its beneficiaries.
I visited a remote, Naxal-affected village in Mirzapur, a district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Most of the households there struggled to make their ends meet. Sitting next to a dilapidated house that had recently collapsed during a storm, I asked its owner who he planned to vote for. He named Modi, and said, “We know a few villages in a 25-kilometre radius that have received subsidies under the Awas Yojana, and they have built concrete houses.” When I asked why his village had not been able to benefit for the past five years, he said, “The pradhan of the village is corrupt. But it won’t be long before we get there. Modi has initiated programs, we should give him enough time to take it to its logical conclusion.” The man felt that people he identifies with are part of the transformation Modi is trying to usher in.
In contrast, the Congress could not create a buzz around its welfare schemes. Rahul Gandhi announced NYAY, which aimed to meet the benchmark income of Rs 12,000 per household per month. But the potential beneficiaries were not even aware of it. The Grand Old Party had even mentioned a separate budget for farmers in their manifesto. But it is a known fact that most people do not read manifestos, and it is the responsibility of the cadres and their leaders to convey the message on the ground. The carpet bombing of their welfare schemes was somewhere between sporadic and invisible.
The politics of welfare has also helped Modi consolidate his caste arithmetic. In Uttar Pradesh, for example, the BJP’s focus has been on the non-Yadav OBCs, and non-Jatav Dalits. They are the ones largely considered to be the swing factor, with Yadavs and Jatavs firmly behind the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party respectively. Those who gain from the subsidies for toilets, electricity and housing are economically marginalised, largely comprising of the lower OBCs and Dalits.
Apart from the non-Yadav OBCs and Dalits, women have been at the core of BJP’s welfare politics. Especially, the drive for toilets has ensured Modi retains his popularity among women. After the results came in, I spoke to Vijaya Rahatkar, national president of BJP’s women’s wing. “Through our welfare schemes, we have consolidated the women’s vote bank in a positive sense,” she said. “Take the toilet scheme. Apart from safety, women feel humiliated defecating in the open. Men pass by, sneer at them and they have to hide their faces. The electrification is dear to women as well. It makes it easy running the household,” she noted.
As I mentioned earlier, a large part of the success of the BJP’s schemes lies in the party’s communication skills that generate awareness of the scheme’s existence. Its social media machinery has penetrated the remotest villages in the country. On top of that, Modi himself talks about it repeatedly through his Mann Ki Baat, which is popular in rural India.
Whether it is Modi himself or the BJP’s social media messaging of the welfare politics, it is cleverly devised. The subtext is always that of a work in progress, which should not be interrupted. They have perhaps learnt from the mistake of their 2004 campaign of “India Shining” that indicated they had done their job. LK Advani had later conceded that “India Rising” would have been a better slogan. Whenever the parties suggest closure, voters look at alternatives.