Are freebies any different from cash for votes?

Last Updated: Wed, May 11, 2016 16:54 hrs

Every five years, during he election time, we are greeted by the same, nauseating image in our newspapers – people from shanty towns squinting against the sun, posing with grinders, mixies, televisions, and fans, all packed in cartons bearing the grinning face of the politician who has bestowed such munificence on them.

This year, in Tamil Nadu, the various parties in the fray have made grand promises of freebies in their election manifestos. In most cases, these amount to bribes. Few of these schemes are likely to actually benefit the recipients on a long-term basis.

A few years ago, I met a college student whose laptop was a freebie. She studied at a private college, and drove a swanky car around town. Did she really need a government-issued laptop when she likely tossed her outdated iPhone in a bin when a newer model was released?

Why are these schemes not better monitored, so that more can be done for those who truly cannot afford the things people of a different socio-economic class take for granted?

Why must taxpayer money be channelled towards giving freebies to those who have more than they need?

This cavalier attitude to taxpayer money is a problem across the country. When the Indian cricket team won the World Cup in 2011, both the central government and various state governments went overboard, dishing out houses, land and money to a bunch of men who rake in tens of crores from endorsements every year.

Taxpayers only get to vote parties to power. We are not allowed to decide how they spend our money. And politicians have always used this to their advantage.

The Tamil Nadu government had a golden opportunity to score well with voters during the floods. Instead, with most of the aid coming from volunteers and private funding, party workers earned bad press. A case in point was the viral video that showed men stamping the Chief Minister’s photograph on food packets they had snatched. The AIADMK alleged that the men were from rival parties. Even if this was the case, should the government have waited so many months to distribute household items?

Most people who are below the poverty line lost practically everything they owned during the floods. Moreover, the distribution of aid was chaotic, with local mafia siphoning off goods and goons lining up to claim free blankets and clothes that they later sold.

Why did the state not use its infrastructure to streamline the distribution?

Giving the public household items six months after they lost them does not make much sense. How is this different from bribing them with money?

AIADMK chief Jayalalithaa and DMK chief Karunanidhi have spoken of their manifestos as being “pro-poor”. But none of their manifestos contains elements that will allow people to reshape their lives and live with dignity. Instead, they 0ffer short-term benefits that will only serve as a stopgap smoothening out dents in living expenses for a couple of months.

Why, for instance, do women need scooters at a discounted rate? The roads are choked with traffic, and the metro construction is chugging along even more slowly than peak hour traffic. Shouldn’t people be encouraged to use public transport, rather than contribute to the congestion? How about giving people metro cards for free, or a discounted rate for metro travel? How about introducing better connectivity in rural areas?

One scheme that has worked brilliantly and benefited its actual target audience is the Amma canteen. Politicians ought to be focusing on schemes that will take care of people’s basic needs – food, hygiene, habitation, and employment.

We don’t have a fixed minimum wage for blue-collar workers. Maids, watchmen, nannies, and labourers work long hours and are paid a pittance. They have no safeguards against losing their employment. They have no retirement scheme. Employers rarely pension off people who have worked for them for decades.  And the state does not have a fixed welfare scheme, such as the dole or social security in other countries.

Instead of waving free mobile phones at the public, why don’t the parties focus on a system where they will be given a stipend until they find employment? Beneficiaries of this scheme will, of course, have to prove that they are actively looking for employment, as they do in the US or UK.

Successive governments have promised to get rid of the “menace” of begging at traffic signals. But what has been done to rehabilitate the “beggars”?
The AIADMK, DMK, and Third Front have all spoken of prohibition of alcohol, but have not come up with viable alternatives for state revenue. They cannot possibly control the consumption of spurious liquor, which is usually the solution to which alcoholics turn when a state goes dry. All the parties contesting in the 2016 election have promised that TASMAC will be disbanded, but that its employees will not suffer. How this will be achieved remains a mystery.

Over the past few elections in Tamil Nadu, anti-incumbency has toppled governments. Election promises have not swept parties to power. The leaders of these parties ought to understand that there is little to be gained by throwing freebies at prospective voters. It would be wiser to make a study of economic conditions and focus on alleviation.

Otherwise, the only difference between cash for votes and “benefits” that crop up around election time is the face of the leader on the surface.

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Nandini is a journalist and humour writer based in Madras. She is the author of Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage. 

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