The narrative of development and populism

The narrative of development and populism


Recent political developments in India underscore the significance of balancing development and populism in the lead-up to elections. The Prime Minister’s announcement of substantial investments in Madhya Pradesh and the Opposition party’s promises in Telangana reveal a recurring trend of “development and populism” as key electoral promises. These promises, while capturing short-term attention, raise questions about their long-term implications. This article explores the dynamics of development and populism and their consequences for welfare and sustainability.


GS-02 (Indian Polity)


  • Populism

Mains Question:

Discuss the interplay between development and populism in electoral promises and its implications for welfare and sustainability. (150 words)

Dimensions of the Article:

  • The Narrow Definition of Development
  • The Hazards of Mega-Infrastructure Obsession
  • Environmental Consequences of Narrow Development
  • Fiscal Implications of Development Financing
  • Space for Economic Populism
  • Growth Models and Distribution

The Narrow Definition of Development:

  • Development is often presented to voters as physical infrastructure projects. This narrow view of development focuses on visible achievements that can be easily quantified, offering an advantage to incumbent governments.
  • The opposition is left with options to promise even larger infrastructure projects, criticize the existing infrastructure, or address the welfare of underserved populations through economic populism.

The Hazards of Mega-Infrastructure Obsession:

  • Equating development solely with mega-infrastructure projects can have adverse consequences. These projects may not consider their environmental impact, leading to long-term ecological damage.
  • Additionally, the financial mechanisms behind these projects may rely on optimistic revenue forecasts, leading to fiscal burdens in the medium term.

Environmental Consequences of Narrow Development:

  • Examples from states like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand demonstrate the adverse effects of prioritizing mega-infrastructure.
  • Unsustainable construction in environmentally fragile areas can result in disasters, such as landslides and flash floods. These environmental costs persist and impose ongoing challenges.

Fiscal Implications of Development Financing:

  • Examining the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) reveals the fiscal implications of financing mega-infrastructure projects.
  • NHAI’s mounting debt, mostly accrued between 2017-18 and 2021-22, raises concerns about debt servicing costs and long-term constraints. The presence of contingent liabilities further complicates the fiscal landscape.

Space for Economic Populism:

  • Economic populism has both political and economic dimensions. Politically, populism claims to represent the unified “people” against perceived adversaries. Economically, it seeks to avoid restraints on economic policy, enabling flexibility.
  • While rules and restraints are vital in preventing unchecked political populism, a balanced approach involving rules and discretion is necessary to limit economic populism.

Growth Models and Distribution:

  • Traditional growth models assumed that growth automatically leads to improved distribution of benefits. However, the “trickle-down effect” doesn’t always work as expected, resulting in some segments of the population being left behind.
  • Government-led redistribution becomes essential to rectify these disparities, making economic populism a rational choice.

Way Forward:

  • A balanced approach that considers both development and populism is essential. Development should encompass sustainable projects that address environmental concerns and avoid fiscal overstretch.
  • Economic populism, when used judiciously, can help mitigate the adverse effects of a myopic obsession with mega-infrastructure.


  • The development-populism dichotomy in electoral promises demands careful evaluation. While visible infrastructure projects hold appeal, their environmental and fiscal costs cannot be ignored.
  • Economic populism, when applied prudently, can bridge welfare gaps created by uneven growth. Striking the right balance between development and populism is crucial for a sustainable and inclusive future.