Analysis: Congress In Pursuit Of Happiness

Analysis: Congress In Pursuit Of Happiness

Studies indicate that happier people are more inclined to vote than those who are depressed and unhappy

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Wednesday, April 10, 2024, 10:25 PM IST
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Representative Image | Gino Crescoli/Pixabay

The introduction to the Congress Manifesto for Lok Sabha 2024 concludes with the query: “Is your life better today than it was in 2014?” Subjective well-being (SWB) is known to impact electoral outcomes, so the question is valid. From a strategic point of view, however, bringing up life satisfaction is always risky for the Opposition. What if it has misread public sentiment, and voters have an improved sense of well-being?

The “is life better or worse” query is intended to focus the voter’s mind on her grievances vis-a-vis the incumbent government. But it is predicated on the assumption that voters are unhappy, and will adjudge the ruling party as incompetent or under-performing. Do voters think ease of living has improved in the last ten years? Do they think the government has delivered? The Congress appears to believe that SWB levels are low.

Studies indicate that happier people are more inclined to vote than those who are depressed and unhappy. The former — the happy brigade — are also more inclined to vote for the incumbent than the Opposition. This is specially true if the economy is perceived as doing well. Factors like unemployment and inflation rates also play a role.

Going by the World Happiness Report 2024, the Congress has nothing to worry about. Indian citizens have been classed as being among the unhappiest in the world. Unhappier than those in war-torn Ukraine, Israel and Palestine. Unhappier than Venezuela, where political turmoil has sent 7.7 million refugees seeking asylum in other countries. Unhappier than Iran, where women were jailed and tortured for refusing to wear the hijab. Unhappier than conflict-ridden countries in Africa.

The Congress proposes to leverage this apparent unhappiness by offering a comprehensive package aimed at improving life satisfaction. Promises include an annual cash transfer of Rs one lakh to every ‘poor’ household in the country, a statutory minimum support price (MSP) for farmers, doubling pensions for senior citizens, widows and the differently abled, lowering toll tax, waiving education loans, introducing a right to paid apprenticeship for diploma-holders and creating approximately 5 million government jobs. Mining will apparently create another 15 million jobs. The first of these promises, the cash payout, alone would add Rs 15 lakh crore to government expenditure.

To keep the taxpayer happy, Congress has promised that it will fund all these schemes without raising income tax rates (economists, however, fear that such entitlement-based policies may be fiscally unsustainable). It does not explain how the resources will be mobilised, but indicates that the private sector will be happy to pitch in once a new regime is in place. Significantly, the party did not endeavour to make government servants happy by including its promise to restore the Old Pension Scheme (OPS) in the manifesto. There appears to have been some rethinking on the issue, with several state governments unable to implement the scheme as promised.

Prima facie, promises of largesse are a sound strategy. Studies in the west have shown that unhappy electorates tend to vote for parties with populist policies, albeit usually right-wing. The swings in favour of Marine Le Pen in the 2017 France elections, and Donald Trump in the US elections are cited as examples.

On the other hand, the Congress had made the same extravagant promises in 2019 — a Rs 72,000 cash transfer, millions of jobs, etc — with no luck. Voter turnout was the highest ever and the incumbent’s mandate even larger than before, despite the fact that India’s SWB scores were even lower than now. In 2019, India was 140th in the country rankings of the World Happiness Report; today, it is 126th.

If voters are unhappy, it’s hard to explain why every opinion poll conducted in the first few months of 2024 predicts the highest-ever voteshare and seatshare for the NDA. Psephologists and pollsters often get it wrong, but journalists in the field can be relied upon for a sense of which way the wind is blowing. Most are fairly certain that it is blowing the BJP’s way — to what degree is hard to say.

Both logic and anecdotal evidence suggest that financial inclusion through Jan-Adhaar-Mobile, UPI and DBT, ease of transport thanks to better infrastructure, fastag and E-waybills, high-speed internet courtesy Digital India, cooking gas under Ujjawala Yojana and a slew of schemes for housing, sanitation and water have found favour with the public. Ambitious schemes like the National Semiconductor mission, the Space Sector reforms and the Gati Shakti mission have created a positive impression. By all accounts, the emotional appeal of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya has created a wave-like sentiment in Uttar Pradesh.

Yet, the Congress believes voters feel they were better off 10 years ago. Either it needs a new strategy, or the NDA is having another “India Shining” moment.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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