In the space of four days, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has twice questioned the practice of politicians making foolish promises of ever more lavish vote-seeking schemes, calling it a dangerous trend. He has a point. In Deoghar, Jharkhand, on July 12, he said it was easy to make populist promises and garner votes through “shortcut” methods. In Jalaun, Uttar Pradesh, on July 16, he added pizzazz to the argument by linking populist propensity to a sweet dish and called it ” revaried‘ Culture. He also put forward his own theory of “development as justice” – highways and energy projects, providing gas, toilets and houses in remote areas such as Bundelkhand all led to “genuine social justice”. It challenged the most commonly understood meaning of social justice at the heart of the country, which is the expansion of rights defined in terms of caste groups. The Bundelkhand highway passes through one of the least developed regions. What should be the precariousness threshold at which state interventions such as free food, job guarantees or cash grants should kick in to provide social security is a long overdue debate. But it should not be forgotten that India lags far behind the standards of social security that the advanced capitalist democracies guarantee to their citizens.
Perhaps one of the reasons politicians are flooding voters with allowances is the disconnect between overall economic growth and job creation. The idea that growth is the panacea for all development challenges is viewed with growing suspicion by voters, although they may not express it in those terms. The demand for greater state intervention for redistribution in democracies must be seen in the context of growing evidence of inequality on the one hand, and growing vulnerability experienced by classes ranging from white-collar workers to farmers the other. While the situation demands a cold and rigorous investigation into the model of development the country is pursuing, many politicians who cross party lines have resorted to wide-ranging ploys to placate or enthuse voters. Apart from the quick political gains they seek, it also prevents any discussion of the existing development paradigm. The Prime Minister would have done better to also open a debate on the impact of major projects rather than to conclude that they invariably lead to development and social justice. India cannot achieve its development goals in education, health or infrastructure without considerable state support. Under what conditions does it become dangerous populism that could ruin the financial stability of the state and when does it function as empowering and empowering welfarism are discussions that are desirable. He may have raised the issue rhetorically, but Mr Modi is now expected to lead the conversation on it, involving chief ministers and other actors.