Jayalalithaa and freebies: How social welfare turned into a culture in TN and beyond

Free electricity for households, a 50 percent subsidy for women to buy scooters, free internet-enabled laptops for Class XI and Class XII students, gold for women getting married, free cellphones, maternity assistance, maternity leave and around Rs 40,000 crore in loans for farmers from 2016 to 2021.

And these constitute only a handful of the freebies that were promised in the AIADMK manifesto ahead of the Tamil Nadu Assembly polls held earlier this year (in which J Jayalalithaa's party defeated rival M Karunanidhi's DMK by a handy margin).

In addition, there was the promise of guaranteed employment, financial assistance for fisherfolk, subsidised milk, subsidised health check-up plans and centres and much more — all within that same manifesto. The notion of social welfare in the form of freebies in Tamil Nadu isn't something that popped up overnight.

As this Firstpost article notes:

It first came into play when late K Kamaraj, chief minister of the state between 1954 to 1963, introduced the concepts of free education and free food for school students to supplement their education. The politics of cheap rice was then played out in 1967 again when DMK founder CN Annadurai promised "three measures" (around 4.5 kg) of rice for Re 1 through the state public distribution system (PDS). 

And while Jayalalithaa (her name is sometimes spelled Jayalalitha), by no means, came up with the concept, she definitely made it her own. After all, Karunanidhi may have revolutionised the freebies culture in Tamil Nadu, but Jayalalithaa mastered the art right under his nose, showering a slew of freebies in 2011 and 2016 on voters.

Representational image. Screengrab from YouTube

Representational image. Screengrab from YouTube

And behind the idea of handing out these gifts was the motherly persona she has been projecting for a large part of her political career. In fact, in one of her campaign speeches ahead of the 2016 polls, she spelled it out for her followers: "A mother knows the need of her children. you will be getting many more schemes (such as Amma Canteens) and services during my government." As this article in The Times of India points out, "If one observes and follows the rise of Brand Amma, it would be evident that personal branding strategies have been carefully used over the years".

However, Jayalalithaa always took exception to the term 'freebies' and chose to call them free-of-cost, insisting that the populist schemes were aimed only at helping the lower-rung masses. In the battle of freebies that intensified in 2006, Karunanidhi's masterstroke of free colour TV scheme among others launched DMK into the ruling saddle, but in 2011 and 2016, Jayalalithaa emerged triumphant wooing voters with her own brand of welfare schemes.

For a quantifiable idea of just how integral to Tamil Nadu politics the notion of freebies is, sample this statistic, courtesy The Hindu: Over the past decade, successive governments in the state have spent nearly $2 billion (Rs.11,561 crore) on just three freebie schemes — colour television sets, laptops and household appliances.

And this model quickly caught on, not in the neighbouring states of Kerala or Karnataka, but in faraway Uttar Pradesh.

In 2012, the Akhilesh Yadav government decided to provide unemployment allowance and laptops and computer tablets to Class X and Class XII graduates. And the plan ahead of the 2017 Assembly election in the state was to do something very similar. That is until demonetisation struck.

According to the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies (CMS), demonetisation will mean that there will be fewer "freebies" for voters. Whether or not this prophecy does indeed come to fruition remains to be seen when the parties release their respective manifestos for the Uttar Pradesh polls, but for the near future, social welfare 'freebies' will always be synonymous with Tamil Nadu politics and indeed, Amma.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Dec 06, 2016 11:46 AM

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