Political parties are meant to be driven by conviction in a democracy. That is all history now. All Indian political parties are now led by convenience. The emphasis is on buying votes rather than winning hearts. In a nation where illiteracy is over 35 per cent, and over 30 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, leaders are indulging in competitive politics—not to make life better or to remove unemployment, but by offering electronic toys to people, who hardly get electricity for more than four hours a day. In a country where most schools and households are without basic amenities like toilets and water, voters are promised fancy laptops, computers, electronic gadgets, colour TVs and mixer-grinders. Instead of improving their purchasing power, the political leadership is determined to fill the order books of companies. Parties have devised an innovative mechanism to collect money from the poor—impose taxes and inflate government expenditure first, and then return the money in the form of attractive goodies instead of productive goods. Money and material have become much better rewarding tools than missions with a vision.
The Congress party’s election manifesto for Himachal Pradesh, which was released last week, guaranteed more freebies than freedom from corruption and poverty. It assured voters of better governance than the ruling BJP, though. While releasing the party’s road map for the tiny state, the Union Minister of Commerce, Industry and Textiles, Anand Sharma, spent more time promising doles than development. Being a hardcore Rajiv Gandhi loyalist, Sharma couldn’t think of a better name for a freebie scheme than one named after his late mentor. Sharma declared that if voted to power, the Congress would launch the Rajiv Gandhi Digital Student Yojana, under which 10,000 students who perform exceptionally well in the board examinations of Class X and XII will be given free laptops. He also promised laptops to students who secure a first class in Class VIII. If that wasn’t enough, he made another commitment—all school- and college-going children would get free passes to attend classes.
National parties like the BJP and the Congress are expected to set the tone and agenda for regional parties by outlining the big picture and their vision for development. But now, the regional satraps and their narrow view of governance lead the national parties. For the past 10 years, most regional parties have won elections only by promising freebies. For example, in 2006, the DMK played a trump card by vowing to give free colour TVs to each family, if voted to power. Over 40 per cent of families live below the poverty line in Tamil Nadu. The DMK won by a massive majority and TV manufacturers minted money; some of them survived the slump, thanks to massive orders for colour TVs from the state government. But the DMK government never thought of providing power or cable connections to the TV viewers. Not to be left behind, in 2011, the AIADMK promised grinders or mixers to all families, and it won at the hustings.
The art of winning elections through gifts, and not performance, travelled fast to the north. More recently, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Akali Dal took a leaf out of the Dravidian model. The SP even went a step further. Without bothering to work out the costs of its munificence—before the Uttar Pradesh polls—SP announced free tablets to all students who passed Class X and laptops to all those who passed Class XII. It also promised an unemployment allowance to anyone above 35 years of age. The Akali Dal’s freebies were even more attractive—laptops with data cards to all Class XII students and free education up to graduation level to all girls, and free bicycles to girls studying in Class IX and X. In 2005, Lalu Prasad Yadav had made an attempt to defeat his arch rival Nitish Kumar by announcing that his government would deposit `10,000 in the bank account of every girl belonging to a BPL family as against `2,000 promised by Nitish. But Lalu lost because Nitish’s bouquet of freebies was a better model of social engineering.
The growing tendency to resort to populism and profligacy at the cost of better governance has already demolished well-defined models of holistic economic development. The Congress which didn’t raise an eyelid while raising diesel prices and limiting the number of LPG gas cylinders to just six a year is now leading the pack with the worst kind of allurements to retain its fast-eroding electoral base. On one hand, the Prime Minister and various Congress leaders are pleading for harsh measures to contain the deficit. On the other, its local leaders are devising newer ways to empty the government’s coffers. Even most BJP chief ministers are offering schemes to hand out cash to voters than job opportunities. For the ruling political establishment, it makes good economics and better politics to make both the corporates and the poor dependent on the state for survival. Elections won by using state money and not a development mission pose a greater threat to Indian democracy than the caste and communal divide.
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