A few years ago, I had asked a voter why did he accept the Rs 500 from a candidate to vote in his favour in the Navi Mumbai civic elections. The voter's pat response was that, this or a bottle of booze or both, or some kitchen utensils are the only benefits they get from the system we have.
His logic was: Whatever else is promised by parties and candidates is swallowed up by engineering and encouraging leakages as well as rent-seeking. The candidate may later become useful in getting a ration card or a school admission but they are seldom able to raise a tide so each boat can rise. To get to him, a middleman is involved, which means a bit of cash again.
All election promises, be they for the gram panchayat or the parliament, such voters insist, either hasn't been delivered upon. They also insist that they, the poor, are targeted for votes but not welfare despite promises. Rising or declining inflation is their barometer of a government's performance. They say they have their favourite political parties but outcome is the same regardless of who wins.
No doubt the world sees India's general elections as a 'festival of democracy', but it is where the voter participates with the full knowledge that after his vote was counted, he or she does not matter. Decline in poverty as measured by disputed statistics is something they say is a farce. A rupee more than the poverty line means upward migration but still with no tangible difference.
That is why pre-poll freebies, or bribing for votes, are a reality. But then, there are poll promises of freebies which may or may not come their way in a full or substantial measure. However, it benefits a few sections. That patchy gains of a few benefitting and others missing out entirely, is the stuff of electoral cynicism. Cannot blame the voters if the percentage of polling is low.
The post-poll freebies, which are the promises made in the election manifestos, are the second level of lure, as has been the case in Tamil Nadu. Livemint on Monday carried a chart which shows the promises made by several political parties and the least number of such promises made by the three main alliances in the state (AIADMK, DMK and PWF-led third front) is three. AIADMK and DMK lead the pack, the latter just a couple of freebies lesser.
The paper has argued that they are acceptable populism because voters can throw out a regime for non-performance. It says that being turned out of office for not keeping promises is the stuff of democracy. But the issue of giving away free things, to my mind, is a confession that the system, which ought to enable improvements in the lives of the citizens by any number of schemes, have miserably failed.
Never before the Election Commission has asked any political party how they would keep the promises, because the notices served to the two majors — the AIADMK and the DMK — requires them to explain the means. That implies the budgetary provisions. The EC has said the basket of promises announced in their respective manifestos is a violation of the model code of conduct. Such violations were not noticed when Bihar promised, and quickly executed, a policy on total prohibition which has revenue, and thereby expenditure implications.
It is good the EC has asked this question because, in an increasingly competition for power, where as in Tamilnadu where one party with a landslide victory can come a cropper at the next, because it wants apparently to ensure that politics is a little more realistic than this race to offer the voters the moon. It could also start asking politicians to explain how they earned their rapid increases in wealth between two elections.
This is because no one even knows if a politician owns a business, and if he or she did, what those businesses actually are. Otherwise, as in the case of Chhagan Bhujbal's disproportionate assets and alleged corruption case, one suddenly sees how it may have been possible even though the wealth was visible, at least a fair part of it. A mandating of total business disclosures is warranted, and unlike the opinion on Livemint, I think populism should be avoided.
Let us assume that AIADMK, being in power, and fully aware of its government's finances, may have made plans to meet the expenditure to deliver on the promises. But the DMK? The party would have made a dent the in the exchequer's coffers, while delivering on its promises. It has been forgotten that running a corruption-free government will ensure better revenues and it will be easier to do general good for the population. Freebies, then, would be a thing of the past.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: May 18, 2016 18:44:44 IST