Its Raining Populist Freebies
By Poonam I Kaushish
It is a perfect electoral cake rolled out by various Parties to the strains of ‘Vote For Me.’ Iced with luscious lip-smacking freebies galore for one and all. From the aam aadmi-debt-ridden kisan- top tax payer. To cream the electorate at the husting.
Wherein sound economic sense has been surrendered to political gamesmanship with reckless promises made by Parties on the assumption that populist pledges yield better electoral rewards than reasoned issues and sustainable programmes. Who cares? After all, promises are just promises. And Government money is nobody’s money!
Witness how our netagan are raining populist schemes and loan waivers in five poll-bound States merrily converting political sops into vote percentages wherein social and economic upliftment is weighed on vote-bank political scales.
Leading the pack is BJP who woos voters with ushering in ‘Sonar Bangla’ via Rs 1 kg rice and wheat, Rs 5 meals at Annapurna canteen, Rs 4000 annually to landless farmers, 33% women reservation in Government jobs, Rs 18,000 to 75 lakh farmers under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, free education for girls from KG to PG, implementation of the CAA etc.
Not far behind TMC’s Mamata Didi wows to create five lakh jobs within a year, free ration at doorstep, Rs 500 per month to economically weak, Rs 1,000 widow pension scheme and Rs 10 lakh student credit card scheme sans collateral if elected again.
In Tamil Nadu both Dravidian Parties are not only enticing voters with gold, TVs, fridges, microwaves but as this alone won’t do, the ruling AIDMK is offering one Government job to every family, 6 free LPG cylinders, ‘Amma’ homes for all, ‘Amma’ washing machines and solar gas stoves for every family
Rival DMK in its voluminous 505 Sonnathai Seivom, Seivathai Solvom ( ‘We do what we say; We say what we do’) promises to start Kalaignar Canteens in 500 places, give poor subsidized food, Rs 24,000 to pregnant women, waive all farm and jewellery loans of small and medium farmers, Rs 10,000 subsidy to farmers for buying electric motors, increase paddy support price to Rs 2500 from Rs 2000 per quintal, 2 lakh new houses for fishermen et al.
The Congress gripped by the Kal Ho Naa Ho syndrome is busy licking wounds with a put-on brave face humming Lead Kindly Light as Rahul-Priyanka serenade Assam with 5 lakh Government jobs, monthly income of Rs 2,000 to housewives, 200 free electricity units, Rs 365 daily wage for tea garden workers and nullifying CAA.
In Kerala the ruling LDF up’s monthly welfare pension from Rs 1,600 to Rs 2,500 for 60 lakh people, 40 lakh new employment opportunities, welfare schemes for taxi, autorickshaw drivers, coir-agriculture-cashew workers and toddy tappers, 50% farm wages hike. The Congress-led UDF assures Rs 2,000 monthly pension for homemakers, five lakh homes for poor, no hospitals bills and free food kits to the Covid 19 affected.
Undeniably, populism is not a new phenomenon and election 2021 is no different from previous polls. In the last over 60 years this ‘catch-all’ politics has reared its ugly head in various forms. The ball was set rolling by the DMK in Tamil Nadu in 1967 when it guaranteed rice at Rs 1. In Andhra TDP’s Telgu bidda NTR Rama Rao followed suit by promising rice at Rs 2 per kg in 1983 and made it into a symbol of victory. Then came the disastrous 80’s “loan melas” followed by colour TVs, fans, sewing machines, saris to voters era.
Congress’s Indira Gandhi heralded political one-upmanship via slogans: ‘Garibi Hatao’ in 1971, BJP followed with ‘Mandir’ and VP Singh Mandal. Which made way for Narasimha Rao’s economic giveaways “roti, kaprah aur makan” and Sonia’s “Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath.” The ruling BJP tweaked this to promising ‘Achche Din’ in 2014 and Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas, Sabka Vishwas in 2019.
In subsequent years bereft of anything new to offer the aam aadmi Parties once again repackaged the old. Kejriwal’s AAP fine-tuned BJP’s bijli, paani, sadak by appending paisa to woo Delhi’s poor. The Saffron Sangh offered women Ujwala scheme, toilets, Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana and Pradhan Mantri Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana.
It can be argued Parties are obliged to be seen as populist in the no-holds-barred free-for-all electoral race, as it would be stupid to wish away political lollipops to entice voters. Raising a moot point: Where do they get monies to fund these doles? Obviously, by taxing us, the people.
True, assurances of cheap rice, wheat or free electricity can be justified. Aren’t such concessions imperative in a country where 70% people live below the poverty line, hungry stomachs feed on enticing neon lights of fast food, rummage in garbage bins for rat-infested left-overs’ and 600 million earn less than Rs 30 a day. Is it not our leaders’ duty to take care of citizens?
Certainly, but at the same time one should never mistake political rhetoric for reality. Politicians of all hues cry hoarse for “a better deal for the poor.” Those who ask for water have been given watershed management programmes. Those who want naukri have been handed NREGA. Debt-laden farmers have got loan waivers. More trees, not coveted mangoes!
However, given the level of dishonesty, populism and irresponsibility which increasingly governs our political system, the measures announced are invitation to disaster. Bluntly, political promises in the economic sphere should not cross prudence limits, where it starts hurting the economy. None sees the danger of economic derailment as the biggest losers are the poor in whose name freebies are justified.
By providing free candies to voters, citizens have become dependent on netas resulting in no empowerment. Consequently, people are unable to critically evaluate leaders. Also, given the economic logic there are no free lunches, a populist scheme is invariably paid for either by higher taxes or increased inflation. Precisely, what the new State Governments would have to do.
Pertinently, in 2013 Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu Government case the Supreme Court directed Election Commission to frame guidelines to restrain Parties from promising freebies to maintain a level playing field as “it shakes the root of free elections to a large degree.” Section 123 of the RPA bars Parties from promising freebies in their manifestos.
What next? One, make it obligatory for Parties to inform EC where they will get monies to implement free giveaway once elected. Will they raise taxes or reduce allocation for programmes? Two, Parties should offer permanent solutions instead of seemingly advantageous, but temporary stop-gap measures. Three, EC should penalize Parties who use quick exploitative mechanism to win votes.
Clearly, leaders must draw a distinction between welfarism and populism. Welfarism takes needs of different sections of society as part of a large development framework. Populism is purely guided by vote-banks, granting concessions which have no economic rationale or are part of larger Governmental economic planning.
Unfortunately, our polity has been unable to perceive reality and consistently failed to evolve a development strategy. Forgetting populism provides immediate succour at the future’s expense. It is no remedy for education and health neglect, faulty industrialization and under-investment in rural areas.
The aam aadmi is no fool. Each populist slogan only accentuates his growing awareness. The real significance of any electoral battle is that unless the problem of poverty is substantially resolved, fake promise will continue to entice voters whereby it could endanger our democracy. Time to draw a ‘lakshman rekha’ on vote-bank politics. — INFA