aap– V.N. Balakrishna | January 06, 2014

Ahmedabad | Were Delhi elections “fought over honesty and corruption for the first time ever,” as Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejrwal claimed or did his pre-poll freebies triumph over ideals despite mounting disgust against the VIP culture of Delhi?

Mass frenzy over freebies is antithetical to our democracy given a polarized multi-party system based on caste, and religious accentuation.

In AAP’s five startling promises what stands out is free water and electricity that could put the caste quotas to shame. Waiving water bills for consumption up to 700 litres per day and halving electricity bills is a new genre of politics India has never seen before.

Not surprisingly a PIL was filed last Thursday in Delhi High Court seeking directions to CBI to register a case of cheating and corruption against Arvind Kejriwal for making “false declarations” in election manifesto to secure votes. The case is slated for January 8.

Announcing freebies on the eve of elections is clearly “poverty of character.” How long can political gimmicking hide the harsh ground realities that freebies corrupt people and make them beg for more? Is this the way to enter state legislatures or Parliament?

The roots of freebie culture can be traced to late 60s when an actor of Tamil Nadu late MG Ramachandran was seen moving around Madras city with a bagful of brand new Rs 5 notes distributing to poor especially those sheltering inside giant water pipes lying around. Those days it was seen as a mega charity and created an aura like Florence Nightingale around MGR benefiting him later as a politician when he broke away from the DMK to form AIADMK. Schemes like free toothpowder, free spectacles for aged, free (token) pensions for destitute further burnished MGR’s image after he became the CM. However, the unseen harm it did was to break the self-confidence of poor trying to make a decent living.

It was MGR’s copycat that was seen in Andhra Pradesh in the 80s when NT Rama Rao made his mega announcement of providing rice at Re 1 a kilo for ration cardholders which catapulted him to the chief minister’s chair. What the poor began getting later was rice with stone granules enough to break one’s tooth enamel. But by that time NTR was firmly in the saddle. Today freebies are a glorious way of outwitting one’s rivals on the eve of elections.

Freebies running into crores empty exchequer faster than fighting a long drawn out war. Akhilesh Yadav offering laptops or Jayalalitha offering TVs, grinders and mixers, electric fans, 4gm gold mangalsutra, free food grains and laptops has bankrupted Tamil Nadu’s infrastructure and health sector development. Aghast an advocate S Subramaniam Balaji asked the Supreme Court in July of last year to restore some sanity in his state through a PIL. The SC rightly admitted, “Freebies shake the roots of free and fair polls,” but sensing political landmine said ‘Jayalalitha government in providing free household items to voters is not corrupt practices under the “present law.”’ It however directed the Election Commission to regulate freebie contents in manifestos. One wonders what stopped the apex court from declaring that the “present law” sanctifying freebies a relic of the past requiring modification?

Election Commission is vainly toying against freebie carrots with stiff political opposition cutting party lines. A competitive political system continues to strain India’s integrity with newer caste groups jostling for preferential treatment out of the shrinking pie. The poverty table is rapidly increasing with over 60% Indians still languishing. How long a wait before Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act is amended to stop the freebies? Chances of newcomer AAP learning a lesson that “Populism pays; but not in long run” seems destined.


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