Tamil Nadu polls: In the election manifesto war, who will will the battle of patronage politics?

In a country where there’s no accountability on poll-promises, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha’s jumbo manifesto hasn’t surprised many. Some called it freebies and patronage, while some, welfare. Either way, it’s an overkill; but it might end up strengthening Jaya’s chances because her list ups the offers made by the DMK.

The manifesto also alters the propaganda discourse. In the last few days left for the campaigns, both the Dravidian parties will now stop slug-fests and compete on who promised more. It will be a real manifesto-war.

Till a couple of days back, Jaya’s adversaries, some even derisively, had been asking her about her manifesto because even the DMDK had one. Their efforts now will be to prove how hard it is to keep the promises and how badly it will drain the state’s precarious resources. The lone ranger PMK has said that her promises will drag the state, which is already burdened by two lakh crore rupees debt, into further financial mess. Most of the economists are likely to agree.

Patronage politics, in which parties and leaders dole out materials and popular schemes targeting the poor, with an aim to attract their loyalty has been part of Dravidian politics in the state. The AIADMK founder and former chief minister MG Ramachandran (MGR) was a pioneer of this strategy and the DMK followed suit. Since then, both the parties that alternated in power, thrived on their list of free supplies.

During the DMK’s last government, the highlight of Karunanidhi’s freebies were 1.67 crore free TV sets, which Jayalalithaa had alleged was to promote his family’s satellite TV and cable business. In the 2011 elections, Jaya trumped Karuna with a promise of laptops, wet grinders, electric fans and more. This time, she is upping the ante again.

A file photo of Jayalalithaa. AFP

A file photo of Jayalalithaa. AFP

Interestingly, many of the AIADMK offers are an improved version of the items on the DMK manifesto that came a bit earlier. DMK had offered to cut the price of milk (produced by the public sector outfit Aavin), waive off education loans and farm loans of small and medium farmers, make electricity billing on a monthly basis and provide maternity leave for nine months. Jaya too has these items, but in more liberal terms - her price cut on milk is better, waiver of farm loans is for all (but from cooperative banks), electricity is free up to 100 units and for pregnant women, there is cash assistance in addition to nine month maternity leave. In addition, she also guarantees jobs to one person in every household.

Graduating from TV, the DMK offers free laptops/tablets and internet for students and mobile phones at subsidised prices while Jaya make them a bit more attractive by making cellphones free for all ration-card holders. The only area in which the DMK looks more drastic is prohibition — the new catchword in Tamil Nadu politics. The DMK offers it instantly, while the AIADMK promises to do it only in phases.

The lists by both parties certainly show that at least half of them are items to please the poor, but a part of the other half denotes some welfare. Free or subsidised power, free internet, medical screening programmes, longer maternity leave and cash assistance, jobs and loan waivers will help people while the household items will be a one-time bonanza and a waste of money in many cases. There will be a lot of redundant supply and misuse because the beneficiary-records are not foolproof. The same household might collect the same items twice or more.

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The real pitfall, however, is that none of these are part of a comprehensive social welfare or social protection policy. Some of the schemes might stay on and will change the lives of people forever, however, had all this been part of a welfare plan, it would have done a lot better in improving the lives of people. For instance, the noon-meal scheme in the state, although originally viewed as a political sop, went on to change the nutritional and educational landscape of the state and even found takers in the rest of the country. The same is applicable to subsidised food items.

Another drawback is that most of these schemes are about procuring and delivering household items which will be beset with corruption and compromise on quality. There were allegations about poor quality of appliances delivered, and lack of transparency in procurement during the present AIADMK government. In an investigation, NDTV found that procurement contracts for most of these items were bagged by trading companies, and not original manufacturers, and in many households, the appliances were falling apart. They will also cost several thousand crores.

Although her manifesto came late, Jaya had told the people in her campaign rallies that she knew what the people in the state wanted and she would give them more if she was elected to power again. In her speeches, she appears benevolent and tells people that she is like their mother who has no other purpose in life, but their welfare. And now she has verbalised it with specifics in the manifesto.

Is it excessive? Will it deliver? We have to wait for a few more days because in Tamil Nadu, political undercurrents are hard to read and the trends, even if unseen, are usually uniform across the state.

Either way, patronage politics and not welfare politics, will ultimately win.


Published Date: May 06, 2016 12:44 pm | Updated Date: May 18, 2016 05:36 pm


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