With the inauguration of projects worth Rs.2,095 crore on December 23, in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has personally announced, inaugurated, laid the foundation stone of, electronically transferred or otherwise declared/effected the release of Rs.1,01,695 crore in the poll-bound state of Uttar Pradesh. [See table below, sourced from media reports]
In the seven years since Modi rose to power, we have seen this many times, though crossing Rs.1 lakh crore may be some kind of a record. It is like a Standard Operating Procedurel (SOP) for the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government, practiced with fluent ease and, one suspects, with relish. After all, what could be more intoxicating than flights to this or that outpost in the hinterland, the fawning officials, the flowers, the heady slogans, the benediction of local leaders and then – the declaration of largesse. Perhaps, the only thing that would match this high would be seeing it all over again on TV, and yet again in the morning papers.
It’s happening again, this time in Uttar Pradesh, that vast and sprawling land of 24 crore people, which the BJP won handsomely in 2017, and which has been managed by Modi’s handpicked chief minister Yogi Adityanath. Elections to the Assembly are slated for around end-February. Notification by the Election Commission will be issued probably in the first week of January. This would mean that the Model Code of Conduct would come into force. Government will be then barred from announcing any major expenditure on welfare schemes etc.
So, it is not surprising that Prime Minister Modi is leading a bunch of top BJP leaders criss-crossing the state holding meetings, visiting temples, interacting with selected members of public – all with a crew of cameras following every step (There were 55 HD cameras, seven uplink satellite vans, a drone, one radio frequency camera, and more for the Kashi Corridor event on December 12) . And, as totally expected, it is raining sops too. What would be essential duties of the government are now being weaponised as election strategy.
What’s Wrong with Spending Money?
That’s a question often asked by BJP supporters if confronted. In the present case of munificence, there are several objectionable aspects. The issue is not spending in itself, but the timing.
1. Why did all this have to wait till two months before elections? Couldn’t women’s self-help groups be given money for carrying out activities earlier? Couldn’t the Saryu Canal be made earlier? PM Modi himself had promised that Bundelkhand would get water, so why inaugurate various schemes for irrigation now at the fag end of Yogi’s term? Gorakhpur has been the epicentre of Japanese encephalitis for years, and in any case that people in that whole swathe are prone to diverse infectious diseases. Couldn’t hospitals and research centre have been built earlier?
The effect of this delay has been that people were deprived of healthcare or irrigation water or other such crucial things for years.
2. Why are these announcements of government spending accompanied by political statements, lampooning and deriding of Opposition parties, covert digs at the minority community and valorisation of people from one party, the BJP? If the prime minister or chief minister want to inaugurate an irrigation system or a solar park or hospitals, that is fine. They want a public function, that too is fine. Government money can be used to arrange all that, within some reasonable limits. But clearly, the public meetings in which such announcements are made are being used to carry out an election campaign. Isn’t that misuse of government money – which is actually people’s money? It is also violative of the spirit of election laws because you simply institutionalise the system of subverting the Model Code of Conduct by distributing largesse and sops just before it comes into effect.
3. Why this huge emphasis on expressways and airports? Ganga Expressway connecting Meerut to Prayagraj (Allahabad) is to cost Rs.36,230 crore while the Purvanchal expressway is to cost another Rs.22,496 crore for connecting Lucknow to Ghazipur. Together, these two high-cost projects will cost nearly Rs.60,000 crore (Rs.58,726 crore to be precise). The two airports (Jewar and Kushinagar) will cost another Rs.10,760 crore. Altogether, this adds up to Rs.69,486 crore. That’s 70% of the announcements made by Modi in UP.
Undoubtedly, airports and expressways would be useful. But wouldn’t it be better to strengthen the state and rural roads network, connect all habitations to all-weather roads, link all health centres with pucca roads, and so on? If you don’t want to counterpose these, do both. But just spending Rs.70,000 crore on expressways and airports is a travesty for a state with one of the highest poverty rates in the country, and which saw the devastation of the pandemic due to shortage of basic health facilities only recently.
Such large infrastructure projects – which seem to be a favourite of the present government – are good for publicity – big numbers, grand occasions, air force planes landing on the road, and so on. Also, like all such big projects the world over, it is a big opportunity for contractors who will do the actual building work. Perhaps, a few thousand local labourers will get the usual pittance in working on them, but the real boon will be for the big construction companies and their sub-contractors.
Is it Going to Work?
Government projects to win votes is just one part of BJP’s election strategy. So, it is not fair to ask this question. Announcements of projects and sops alone cannot help in winning elections. But this is a big part of BJP’s approach to winning elections. Throw money and gifts at people, call it “development” and they will vote for you – this is what BJP has always thought. This shows their approach to people.
The other tactics of BJP also fall in the same category. Raising polarising issues in order to galvanise people from the majority community, forming caste alliances and promising various benefits to each, pumping in enormous amounts of money on media and outdoor advertisements, and other election paraphernalia, using government agencies like Enforcement Directorate, Income Tax Department, Central Bureau of Investigation etc., to harass Opposition parties (this has already started in UP), are some of the other planks of BJP’s electoral SOP. This combination is gradually getting unveiled in UP, too.
However, since BJP’s election victory in 2014, many BJP state governments have been thrown out by the people, and in many other states, it has failed to win – despite PM Modi treading the very same path as he is doing in UP. BJP lost Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Karnataka, it failed to win Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, it lost Maharashtra after its ally deserted it, it nearly lost Bihar, and it had its worst showing in PM Modi’s home state of Gujarat. In many smaller states in the North-East, it performed miserably in the elections but tagged on to regional parties to grab power.
So, the frenetic pace set by PM Modi and his associates in UP is no guarantee that they will perform better in the Assembly elections. Much water is yet to flow down the Ganga before the winner will be decided