A laptop, mixie, wet grinder, 35kgs of free rice per month, gold coins, free land, and now Nano cars and generator sets. These are the things promised by the various party and independent candidates of TN, in exchange for tenure at the state assembly and a share of the power. While there is a lot of hue and cry over how moral such promises are and whether they border on bribing the voters through promises of future freebies, I still feel this is a step in the right direction rather than a move which may indicate the fall of Indian politics.
The problem people have against freebies is that, they feel it’s an easy way of garnering votes. The democratic process is much beyond the promise of freebies. It’s about putting the best possible administrator in power, someone who is able to run an efficient government while making the right usage of the public tax money. The very concept of the tax money going out as colour televisions and laptops is obscene to many. Also the idea of elections being won on material promises makes many cringe their noses and start out on the rhetoric of how politics has deteriorated to such levels in the past decade. They also see it as the sign of the fall of TN politics in the national stage, especially since such promises aren’t to be seen in any other state, atleast not so blatantly.
I suppose we are a bit short-sighted in jumping to such a conclusion. Before passing judgements against the current practise, it would make sense for us to see how votes have been gathered historically. What were the aces up the sleeves of the politicians before the colour TVs and grinders came into the picture? What promises appealed to the voters then and why isn’t it applicable now? Has the expectations and outlook of the voters indeed degraded over the decades or has it improved? The answers to these questions may help us analyse the issue a bit better.
Rewind back to the 1960s. The DMK was a challenger party against the giant called Congress. It won its first election then riding on the hate waves it had created using the anti-Hindi agitations and anti-Brahmin movements. There were secessionist sentiments at play and one of the electoral promises was of liberation from India and the formation of a separate Tamil country. Further elections saw this being played to various different tunes, based on what’s going on in the national stage, be it the emergency of the Indira Gandhi government, or the beginning of the Eelam movement in Sri Lanka. But again Mr.Karunanidhi was smart enough to drop the demands for a separate country, when he knew the agenda had served its political purpose and could no longer be used to mobilise masses to vote for him. Such stunts can no longer be pulled because the people are lot more aware now than they were earlier and the amount of development in the state and its integration with the nation as a whole through business and commerce has ensured that any sort of separatist sentiment can no longer hold sway.
There have been a few more factors at the micro level which have forced the major TN parties to re-look their election strategies. One of the biggest among them is the reducing effectiveness of caste based politics in the state. Though it hasn’t completely lost traction, caste as a sole determinant of vote is slowly but surely on the way out in the state. A couple of decades back, all it took to win a seat was to make someone from the majority caste contest there. Now the people are demanding much more than just a candidate from their caste. And in this aspect, the state is far ahead of many others in the country, where still religion and caste are enough to sway elections.
And as the promises are indeed being delivered, as seen in this tenure of the government, and aren’t mere eye-wash, the freebie policy seems a far better omen than any other socio-political cajoling of the voters that the previous governments have resorted to. And again this isn’t a phenomenon which is new in governance. Many governments in many developed nations provide social support and government sponsored benefits, both in general and also to specific segments of the population like students, women etc. While some of the schemes announced in TN are outright blatant, and some like the marriage support are uniquely Indian, most others like education and health benefits are schemes which are quite popular world over and largely absent in the Indian scenario till now. The fact that these are being actively looked into by the people in power, and systems put in place to implement them, speaks a lot about the future prospects of Indian politics.
Let us not be too quick to criticise or downplay the election promises and their long-term effects. More than anything else, it’s a sign of development, rising aspirations and delivery of tangible promises to an electorate who just aren’t satisfied with the existing way of doing things and demand a lot more from the politicians than mere caste-smeared speeches. The current state of affairs announces the beginning of an era of performance based politics, where voters make their choices based on a clear set of deliverables and not just on the ability of leaders to sway masses through their oratorical skills. Of course there are going to be political kickbacks from all these schemes. Whoever comes to power, would of course line his/her pockets. But still, if there is some development happening, and if the attitude and mind-set of people changes as a consequence, then I would just say one thing – “Bring out more freebies”.