Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Beware of Election Freebies

It is the silly season of election time once again in India. Election times have tended to lean towards freebies promised by all parties concerned over the past few years. About five years back, Mr M Karunanidhi’s DMK went a step forward and promised free colour television sets for the poor of Tamil Nadu if they came to power. Sure enough, when they came to power, they set out to fulfil their promise. They did not plan or promise the electricity required to run them, but they squandered taxpayers’ money on television sets, pressing as the need was for them for the poor.

Each party comes up with more and innovative means of squandering taxpayers’ money, Today, there is even a term for it, ‘competitive populism’.

This is a very dangerous trend. A few years back, while driving through the rural areas of Tamil Nadu, I came across a PDS shop distributing the 25 kg of rice per month per ration card-holding family. The person who was with me mentioned that the 25 kg rice scheme has destroyed any incentive to work among many families with the result that it is difficult to get labour in Tamil Nadu. After all, why indulge in back breaking manual labour when the food is available for free? The upcoming election has seen a rash of such promises — laptops, mixers, grinders were on the list among other things.

On the one hand the middle class is taxed heavily and that money is used, not for infrastructure building, but for freebies such as these which apart from being a leaky bucket also remove the incentive to work and get ahead in life. These freebies effectively emasculate a population which cannot take the rough and tumble of the jungle once they are used to being given stuff for free. What makes it even worse is that once something like this is set in motion, it is very difficult to reverse the trend and this becomes a show of one upmanship between political parties. And Kerala is poised to go the same way too.

The long-term effects of this are not hard to see — on the one hand, the middle class will work hard and get taxed heavily by the Government to fund its castle-in-the-air dreams. On the other hand, the poor will get used to a culture of entitlements and continue to remain dependent on Government doles and election freebies — which will work very well for the party since they are effectively a captive vote-bank.

It is a perfect recipe for political parties to form corrupt Governments while distributing a few small freebies to the ignorant populace and keep them happy while looting the exchequer, secure that their votes will come for a TV set or a grinder. Instead of focusing on pressing problems of their States and country like better infrastructure and quality of life, political parties are busy offering palliatives to real issues in order to buy votes.

(This was published in the Pioneer as an Op Ed titled, The culture of buying votes with freebies, yesterday.)

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