“Bhagya”, or good fortune, has been the Siddaramaiah government’s catchword. Nearly a dozen welfare schemes it has launched have been branded as one or the other “Bhagya”.

How will these bounties — estimated at nearly 40% of the annual State budgets — tilt his own “bhagya” at the hustings?

Right from the word “go” since coming to power in May 2013, the Congress government have been introducing welfare scheme for the backward castes, the poor and the minorities. Anna Bhagya, a scheme to provide free rice, was announced by Mr. Siddaramaiah within hours of being sworn in as Chief Minister. The list has steadily grown to meet various needs of a poor family: healthcare, shoes, textbooks, milk, housing, bicycles, laptops, cattle, cooking gas and and even dentures for the aged.

The latest is the low-cost eateries called Indira Canteens, modelled on the Amma Canteens of Tamil Nadu, across Bengaluru and other district headquarters.

Anna Bhagya

Anna Bhagya is easily the most popular, providing rice and lentils with an aim to make Karnataka hunger-free. The State’s purse strings are with Mr. Siddaramaiah as he holds the Finance portfolio and this helped him launch various schemes.

Ksheera Bhagya supplies free milk to schoolchildren. Krishi Bhagya subsidises farmers’ expenses on building farm ponds. Runamukta Bhagya waives loans of people belonging to the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities and Other Backward Classes.

If Arogya Bhagya bestows free healthcare for all, there is even a Laptop Bhagya to gift laptops to college students. Saala (loan) Bhagya waives loans up to ₹50,000 taken by farmers from cooperative bodies.

Mr. Siddaramaiah may be hitting headlines with his tirade against Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP president Amit Shah accusing them of practising communal politics or for his decision to recommend the status of a separate religion for Lingayats. But the Congress is largely banking on its “bhagyas” for support from various social groups, party functionaries say.

Nearly 40% of the budgetary allocations have been spent on these schemes during the past five years. The schemes have been well publicised.

Reaping the dividends

The party believes that the programmes have benefited more than 75% of the population and now is the time to expect electoral dividends. The government has claimed that the “bhagyas” have in one or the other way benefited nearly 1.4 crore families, or over four crore people, in the State.

Anna Bhagya, for instance, is seen to have given food security to 3.85 crore beneficiaries a year at a cost of ₹11,564 crore in the past five years.

These welfare schemes became the talking point during the month-long Jana Ashirwada campaign taken up by Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Criss-crossing the four regions of Karnataka, Mr. Gandhi dwelt on the “bhagyas” and urged the party to highlight them in its campaigns.

To criticism that the schemes were “populist”, Mr. Siddaramaiah shot back, “I want to know what a ‘populist’ programme is. Any programme that socially and economically empowers people cannot be dismissed as populist.” He justified them as the Karnataka version of being Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, which is the Modi government’s slogan for inclusive growth.

A general perception is that despite drought in the State from 2013 to 2016, the people received two meals a day because of Anna Bhagya. Many experts say that during those years, Anna Bhagya became the lifeline of hundreds of BPL and Antyodaya card-holding rural families.

The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) and DAKSH’s Karnataka Survey Report on Voters’ Priorities (2018) show that a vast majority of respondents (79%) was happy with Anna Bhagya.

The Chief Minister, too, averred that the victory in last year’s byelection was an endorsement of the government's initiative.

Muzaffar Assadi, Professor, Department of Studies in Political Science, University of Mysore, says the Bhagya schemes represent a new way of addressing the issues of poverty, hunger, starvation, social backwardness and so on without dislocation or dispossession. “It has given a subaltern approach to the issues. Compared with the earlier three socio-political revolutions in Karnataka — namely land reforms, reservation, and decentralisation — the Bhagyas constitute the fourth passive revolution after the reorganisation of the State.”

However, its critics pick many flaws, and say many genuinely poor people are yet to get the ration cards meant for BPL households. The BJP contends that the Centre, by paying ₹30 a kg of rice, actually bears 90% of the cost of the free rice scheme. It wonders how the State can take the credit for it.

The moot question that political pundits have is: Will the bhagya schemes translate into votes for the Congress next month?

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