Can political parties keep their word on ‘freebies’? And, does the ‘freebie culture’ hurt or help in socio-economic development? A Kalaiyarasan, a Fulbright-Nehru fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in Brown University explains it to K Ezhilarasan in an exclusive interview.
You might have seen manifestos of various parties during every election across the country. How do you see the manifestos of the political parties in Tamil Nadu?
Political manifestos are parties’ declaration of vision that they have for the larger economy, society, and governance. These manifestos have two components when it comes to economy: the shortterm and long-term goals. In our context, short-term goals include the economic slowdown witnessed before the pandemic and the pandemic- generated crises. Long-term issues are around the broader economic growth, which have greater impact on people’s lives. All four parties – DMK, AIADMK, BJP, and MNM – have shown some competitive populism in their manifestos. Some lack reality in responding to specific problems. I do not think they have an understanding about the economic trajectory of the State. These manifestos seem excessively focused on welfare, and I am not sure if it can be translated into actionable programmes.
Both the AIADMK and the DMK have promised monthly financial aid for homemakers that requires huge funds. Do you think it is feasible to execute this when the government is reeling under a financial deficit?
In all elections, parties make tall promises irrespective of them being translatable into programmes or not. Due to the pandemic, the people would be happy to get some sort of stimulus package. But the worry is, from where will the money come? Will they generate new revenues or taxes to compensate for the additional burden, or cut down the current expenditure which is very crucial in the social infrastructure? The answers to these questions will determine my response. If they are going to fund it by cutting down on the social sector, I would say, ‘No.’ But if they are going to do it in different ways without affecting the social expenditure, then it is a ‘Yes.’ But I am pessimistic about it due to the losing autonomy of State governments to generate their revenue; there is a fiscal centralisation happening at a national level.
As an economist, how do you classify the welfare schemes of the AIADMK and DMK governments? What is the difference between them? And what is your take on freebies?
It’s a known intervention, and there is a pattern to it. DMK, for instance, has been an institution builder, stimulating growth and development while AIADMK has focused on welfare and hyper-populism. At times, these both complement each other. When there is a crisis, the focus is fully on competitive populism. All freebies aren’t welcome. If we give additional financial assistance to the public amid a pandemic, I would not call it a freebie. It is, rather, a stimulus package. But, if only electoral concerns are driving the decisions, without acknowledging the impacts, then it’s a problem.
Do you think the people will vote for a party on the basis of promises given in the manifesto?
This is a mixed answer. Yes, to an extent people read and listen to manifestos. But I am not sure that an instant electoral promise can influence electoral outcome. Sometimes, they may work but not always. People are more intelligent than we think. People take advantage of the cash transfer and other forms of populism, but they also look at other factors which may be ideological, cultural or rights -based. Manifestos are taken seriously and evidence also shows that people just do not vote for somebody who gives money.