//It's raining freebies in India polls

It's raining freebies in India polls

It's raining freebies in India polls
By Soutik Biswas,  BBC News, Tamil Nadu

Television sets, cooking stoves, electricity, rice, bicycles, umbrellas, land and even gold.
These are a few things you may get free if you vote a party into power in elections next week in India's southern Tamil Nadu state.

Politicians are raining promises of freebies to voters in the state ahead of the 8 May elections to its 234 assembly seats.

Trying to woo 46 million voters with freebies is a tad strange in a state which has some of the best development indicators in India – including a steep literacy rate – and healthy revenues.

Though the majority of its people depend on farming for a living, Tamil Nadu – also called India's Detroit as it is home to a raft of international car makers – mops up most of its revenues from services (55.79%) and industry (30.14%).

But politics in this fast-developing state is still mired in old-world and often wasteful populism, which, if overdone, could easily push it into a fiscal abyss.

Competitive populism

This time, as in past, the two prominent parties in the state – the AIADMK and the DMK – are locked in a keen contest with national and regional allies.

As in the past, it is a contest between two charismatic leaders who made the transition from film to politics – the feisty ex-heroine J Jayalalitha of the AIADMK and the ageing ex-film writer Karunanidhi of the DMK.

But come elections and there is a frenzy of competitive populism with both the parties promising gifts to voters without much thought about where the money will come from to pay for them.

There's even a quirky gender spin when it comes to freebie promises.

The DMK is promising a free television set to every family (state population: 62 million) for "women's recreation and general knowledge".

There's also the promise of "quality rice" at two rupees (less than a cent) a kilo to "make women feel happy at heart".

If the DMK comes to power, voters are also promised free gas stoves, computer training and electricity (to farmers and weavers). The landless are being promised two acres of land.

One of the achievements that the ruling AIADMK is crowing about is giving away free bicycles to every student in the state – the government says it has already given away 500,000 cycles and if voted back it promises to give one to every student.

On 1 May Jayalalitha went a step further, promising four grams of gold to every poor woman who gets married.

Tamil Nadu's parties have a long history of affirmative social action and giving away inducements to voters – back in 1967, the DMK promised 3kg of rice free for a rupee to voters. In the 1980s, the AIADMK gave away free electricity to farmers.


Economists say that social welfare initiatives have now degenerated into cheap populism at the expense of tax payers.

"This freebie rush is ridiculous. Earlier, it was a meaningful exercise to help the poor, to send children to school. Now they talk about giving away free TV sets to every family without considering the costs and whether they can supply so many sets," says economist R Srinivasan.

DMK chief M Karunanidhi defends his TV deal stoutly – he says it would cost 10.6bn rupees ($236m) in the first phase to give away TV sets to 5.3m of the poorest families. He says giving away subsidised rice at two rupees a kilo – down from the present 3.50 rupees – would cost the exchequer only 450m rupees ($10m) more.

His economic adviser, economist P Naganathan, says freebies are essential in the new economic environment where traditional jobs have dried up and more than five million people are registered unemployed.
But why give away a TV set to every family?

"TV is not for entertainment. It is for watching educational programmes," answers Naganathan.

The AIADMK's free cycle scheme for students also has its fair share of critics. It began with cycles for the less privileged, which perhaps made sense, but now it could be extended to all students, rich or poor.

The government has already spent 220m rupees ($4.9m) giving out free cycles, bringing allegations of a "cycle scam" involving kickbacks by suppliers, which the government has denied.

"We give away what we promise. We are not promising free TVs or two acres of land to every farmer. How will the DMK find the 8m acres of land they would need to give to the four million poor farmers they are talking about," asks AIADMK lawmaker K Malaisamy.

Do voters get snared by such freebies to vote for a party?

Political scientist P Radhakrishnan doesn't think so: "There is no ideology in politics any longer. A lot of the freebie promises are empty rhetoric, which the parties cannot fulfil. The voters also know that," he says.

Such cynicism is reflected in a local newspaper cartoon showing a woman talking to her husband as a politician drops by soliciting votes.

"He's promising free cooked food at the doorstep if he's voted in," she quips.