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Freebie season in full swing as India's polls near

Publication Date : 05-03-2014


Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J. Jayalalithaa is not shy about asserting her prime ministerial ambition.

Ahead of the general election next month, she is taking her campaign across the country, promising laptops for students, electric mixers and grinders for the poor and goats, sheep and cows to poor farmers as part of her party AIADMK's election manifesto.

She has also promised to extend a Tamil Nadu state scheme to the entire country, where poor girls get 4g of gold as a marriage gift. It is all, Jayalalithaa told reporters, for the "development and growth" of the nation.

Every election season, such freebies and sops are dangled to woo voters in India, home to over 22 per cent of the world's poor. While they are legal, India's Supreme Court last year noted that they "shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree".

That has not stopped anyone. The Congress government, which has been in power for two terms and is lagging behind rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in opinion polls, has been busy with handouts too. Over the weekend, Cabinet ministers gave up their Sunday to greenlight the reservation of government jobs for the Jat community, a farming group present in large numbers across nine northern Indian states.

In the last couple of weeks, the government has also announced an increase in subsidies for cooking gas, higher allowances for government employees, cheaper gas and minority status for the Jain community which includes reservation of university seats.

The Aam Aadmi or Common Man party in turn has been highlighting how it cut electricity bills in half and gave free water during its 49 days of power in Delhi, as party leader Arvind Kejriwal moves on to national politics.

The BJP too is expected to announce sops when it releases its party manifesto, due this month.

Political analysts say freebies are popular because they work. "It is an effective tool to get votes. In Punjab, free power for farmers brought the current government of Parkash Singh Badal to power," said political analyst Sudhir Panwar.

The Election Commission this year said parties need to say how they plan to implement any promised measures and "broadly indicate" how they will pay for them.

The parties protest that the handouts do much to improve ordinary Indians' lives. "It should be seen as an equitable distribution of wealth," said D. Raja, a Communist Party of India MP.

But others see them as nothing short of bribes to voters. "Giving grinders, colour TV (sets) are definitely not in interest of nation and it should be banned," said K.J. Rao, general secretary at the Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections, a non-profit that monitors poll procedures.

Others are worried sops like subsidised gas will further drain government coffers at a time when economic growth has already slowed to below 5 per cent.

"In the short run the poor will gain and will get benefits but these are at the cost of long-running developmental programmes, which may not get the necessary funds," said Institute of Economic Growth's Professor Arup Mitra.


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