This weekend, I visited Hyderabad after a couple of weeks of avoiding what seemed to be persistently heavy monsoon rains. As I reached the Andhra Pradesh (AP) capital, I realized that the monsoons may have ended in the state but the outpouring of freebies by the political parties—the ruling Congress party and the opposition Telugu Desam Party (TDP)—has taken the state by storm.
In the 48 hours I was there, I witnessed a litany of promises, which, if actually implemented, could cost the state’s exchequer several thousand crores. The list of promises being made is truly impressive and includes assured, free power supply for agriculture for 9-12 hours every day (power supply for agriculture is free now, but erratic); cheap rice at Rs2 a kg, the freebie of choice in the armoury of Southern politicians, first started by TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao; waiver of agricultural loans from commercial banks; unemployment allowances; free houses for the urban middle classes; free house plots for the poor. The list is long.
AP yielded huge political dividends to the Congress party in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections and helped secure power at the Centre. The chief minister, Y.S. Rajasekhar Reddy (popularly known as YSR), appears to have a brief from the Congress high command to do whatever it takes to reclaim the state for the party in the soon-to-come midterm polls to the Lok Sabha.
The hurried and unscheduled announcement by the chief minister on Friday that his government would implement the cheap rice scheme—it could cost the state upward of Rs1,000 crore by modest estimates—has taken everyone by surprise. This was done merely a day after the TDP politburo announced that it was considering implementation of the scheme after it comes to power again. Having pushed the Congress government into implementing one of the TDP’s trademark welfare schemes, the TDP has made a host of other populist promises, which the YSR government will find very difficult to match.
Meanwhile, TDP supremo Chandrababu Naidu is speaking in a new lingo these days. He is promising a new economic policy regime that will not only create wealth, but also ensure its equitable distribution. The TDP, which is already showing signs of a comeback, now hopes to ride on a populist plank to post a massive victory in elections.
Other parties, such as the separatist Telengana Rastra Samiti (TRS) are crying foul. TRS fears that the Congress and the TDP are peddling populism to avoid voters focusing on the separate Telengana issue.
The TRS’ apprehensions are not misplaced. Despite a lack of grass roots organization and credible leadership, the TRS has been able to capitalize on the separate Telengana sentiment, and if voters don’t pay attention, the party’s political chances will get bleaker.
Meanwhile, Telugu popular film star Chiranjeevi, who goes by just one name and whose recent films have bombed at the box office, has, for a while, been planning to enter politics by launching his own political outfit. His recent meetings with some Left leaders have fuelled speculation that he is waiting in the wings for an opportune moment.
The competitive populism engaged by the principal mainstream parties, however, makes it difficult for the film star to time his entry as he increasingly has little to offer to the people than what has already been promised.
The south is a trendsetter, when it comes to electoral giveaways that seem to work. Popular and long-dead film stars such as M.G. Ramachandran and AP’s Rama Rao used populism to a very good political—and sometimes social—effect. But AP can ill afford to give everything away for free as the current CM and the former CM seem to want to.
But as Lok Sabha elections loom—sometime between February and May is my prediction—what is happening in AP may just be a precursor to what will happen in many states and at the national level. And, as always, to the victor will also come the fiscal thorns of such promises.
G.V.L. Narasimha Rao is a political analyst and managing director of Development & Research Services, a research consulting firm. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org