Following Narendra Modi’s demonetisation initiative in particular and over several past years in general, few Indian politicians have made as much of a laughing-stock of themselves as Mamata Banerjee has. However, if you were to mention this to her (which you really shouldn’t), I can bet she won’t appear the least bit perturbed. Because she and her kind figured out long ago what you know but still haven’t accepted – that in a country like India, the educated, socially aware, opinionated middle-class seldom votes in a block, and is too small to swing an election anyway. No, the real vote winners in an underdeveloped country of a billion plus are always what Donald Trump called the silent majority – the poor, the unemployed, the under-educated, the marginalised, the have-nots, the subalterns – whichever term you prefer.
Now then, how do you earn the votes of people who don’t have much, were never given the benefit of quality education or meaningful employment, and predictably have never heard of fiscal deficits or debt traps? Easy. You give ’em free stuff, of course. From where, you might ask. Tsk Tsk. What did you think all that taxpayer money is for? Development? Healthcare? Oh please, where’s the fun in that?
Jayalalitha, the recently deceased CM of Tamilnadu, had long been the gold standard for such freebies in the name of governance. You have Amma canteen, Amma water, Amma cement, Amma laptops, Amma baby kits, Amma pharmacies, wet grinders, pedestal fans, TVs, gold and what not. This obsession with her own popular nickname Amma (meaning mother) on everything reached a new low a while back during the Chennai rains. Relief packages from all over India and beyond were mandatorily stamped with a beaming picture of her before they were sent on for distribution. Few people complained, fewer were heard. The political math was blatant and obvious – if you are stranded in a flood, and all the relief you get appears to come from a certain politician, it’s fairly predictable where your vote will go at the next election.
Then there’s the other family member – Didi (Elder sister) aka Mamata Banerjee, the CM of my home state of West Bengal. That she is a paranoid woman of evidently questionable education along with a habitually difficult relationship with facts or, um, Hindi are points we’ll come back to another time. But when it comes to giving freebies, she definitely beats Jayalalitha in calculated shamelessness even though not in scope. She has given compensation to people who fell sick after consuming cheap liquor and to people who have lost money to evidently shady chit funds. She has given stipends to thousands of imams of mosques and millions of rupees to thousands of clubs. Then there are other “public welfare” schemes like rice at Rs. 2/kg, shoes and bi-cycles for students, cash for pregnant women etc..
Meanwhile, the accumulated debt of Tamilnadu stands at Rs. Two Thousand Billion. West Bengal, with an even higher debt, is now well into the supremely wise cycle of taking on new loans to pay off old loans. Nobody seems to be very concerned.
It does not take an Amartya Sen to point out that all that money could have built roads and hospitals, provided education and electricity, purchased land for industry and so on. It is also true that doing meaningful development and generating employment (especially in this country) would also be useful in earning votes. The crucial element missing in that argument is the timeline. It takes years to build a factory and employ a large number of people. It takes decades for a generation to benefit from an improved education system, gain employment and return the favor in votes. Meanwhile, the opposition can always find some “unwilling farmers” (Didi would know, its how she became CM in the first place) or some clever spin, and the next election is never more than five years away. So, freebies.
One other political benefit of such practices is that once you have given enough things for free to enough people, you reach the coveted cult status among the masses. From that point award, it becomes unnecessary to fight elections on ideological or policy terms. Merely displaying your benevolent face everywhere, the occasional rhetorical speech and the judicious waste of taxpayer money usually suffices. The fact that Jayalalitha was jailed on corruption charges did not stop her from being elected as Chief Minister another three times.
And finally, while it is easy placing justified blame at the doors of politicians, the collective psyche of the masses is not entirely free of guilt either. If the people of this country are offered, say, Rs.1500 for an honest day’s work or Rs.1000 for doing absolutely nothing, I honestly cannot say that the majority wouldn’t choose the latter. It is the exact same mentality that enables and perpetuates the beneficiary politics – why demand employment when you can buy state subsidized rice with state unemployment stipends for lunch, and have a subsidized sip or two in the evening sitting at a state sponsored club?
What can break the chain is, of course, education and awareness at grassroots levels. And the reason that doesn’t look like happening anytime soon is, yep, all the above.
Vicious cycle? Nope. Just politics.