A video from the Labharthi Utsav (festival for beneficiaries) organised by the Rajasthan government on Monday went viral on social media. In the video, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot is seen quizzing a woman over video conference on the number of welfare schemes she is availing. After the woman, a widow, the lone earning member in a household of two children and ageing mother-in-law, lists out the schemes she has enrolled for, and Mr. Gehlot asks, “Do you have cows?” Pat comes the reply, “No, I only have a mithu (parrot)”. Mr. Gehlot’s question was aimed at enlightening her about his government’s cattle insurance scheme — Mukhyamantri Kamdhenu Pashu Bima Yojana. But there aren’t any government insurance schemes, at least yet, for pet parrots.
The Gehlot government is on an overdrive highlighting a bouquet of welfare schemes, and reaching out to individual beneficiaries for direct feedback and expanding this base of beneficiaries or labharthi.
The word was introduced to the everyday political lexicon of the country by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP. Sometime around the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP started the “labharthi” narrative, exploiting the world’s oldest division of “haves” and “have-nots” to unite the latter group, which has been historically numerically stronger beyond the divisions of caste, community, gender and religion.
With elections less than five months away, the Congress government led by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has embraced it. Monday’s event was the second edition of the Labharthi Utsav (the first one was held on March 30), a mega carnival that also doubles up as a platform to showcase his government’s achievements.
The Gehlot government’s Mary Poppins-like bag has a scheme for everyone; health and accident insurance schemes (Mukhyamantri Chiranjeevi Swasthya Bima Yojana & Mukhyamantri Chiranjeevi Durghatna Bima Yojana) and the Mukhyamatri Kisan Mitra Urja Yojana which provides up to 2,000 units of power free for the farmers. Along with this, up to 100 units of domestic electricity have been made free. Rajasthan is the only State in the country to keep aside nearly ₹900 crore for its urban employment guarantee scheme — the Indira Gandhi Shehari Rozgar Guarantee scheme.
“It’s people’s money being used for people’s interest,” Mr. Gehlot says, waiving off the Opposition questions on the fiscal wisdom behind such an exercise.
At the core of the “labharthi push” is also the fear of the oscillating pendulum of power that has alternated between the BJP and the Congress since 1998. The other hope is that the capacious labharthi umbrella could perhaps neutralise the traditional caste rivalries in the Gujjar versus Meena and the Jat versus Rajput conflicts, that have often tripped many political giants. Not to forget, the State’s former Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot who is on a rebellious course. Can the labharthi euphoria paper over the intra-party schisms?
Much like the BJP, the Congress is hoping that a caste-less monolith of beneficiaries will stand by it in elections.
A government extending a bunch of welfare schemes is neither unprecedented nor unique. Cynics within the party point out that during Mr. Gehlot’s previous tenure, 2008-13, he had similarly championed the Mukhyamantri Nishulk Dava Yojana (MNDY) or the free medicine scheme that provided generic drugs free of cost. This was a runaway success. But it did not win him the election. From the 96 seats it won in 2008, the Congress was down to 21 and the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government came to power with a whopping 163 seats in an Assembly of 200.
But believers point out that the key difference between the two tenures is that back then the government did not “talk enough” about its work. “There is no denying that there is anger against many of the Congress legislators, but the labharthi-push will create a pro-incumbency buzz strong enough for people to vote for Mr. Gehlot, even if they do not want to vote for the individual Congress legislator,” a Congress MLA said. Another dozen-odd “Labharthi Utsav” have been planned before the election schedule is announced later this year.
The party is hoping Mr. Gehlot, who comes from a community of magicians, will pull a rabbit out of his hat and cast a spell on the electorate.