New Delhi: These “gifts” can be as tangible as colour TV sets, free meals and subsidized rice at Rs2 a kg, or as clever as funds for widows to get remarried. They usually have one thing in common: Most of the sops have nothing to do with myriad pre-poll assurances on reform and key policy changes.
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In the six states going to polls in the next three months, ahead of the crucial national elections next year, the coalitions in power have perfected the art of populism by announcing several schemes to woo voters from various strata of society, some of them coming months ahead of this month’s announcement of poll dates by the Election Commission.
On Sunday, the commission said elections in Jammu and Kashmir will take place in seven phases, starting 17 November and running through 24 December. The other states where dates were already set are Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram.
A quick review of the pre-poll, voter-friendly deals suggest many of them are aimed at women, who form a big chunk of the voting population. Throw in niche vote banks such as ragpickers and, of course, those families dubbed BPL, or the so-called below the poverty line, and there are plenty of handouts for almost everyone.
In Madhya Pradesh, where assembly elections are due on 25 November, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state government has introduced schemes for pregnant women, newborns and girls.
Over in Rajasthan, the ruling BJP government has launched the Bhamashah scheme for BPL families, named after a historical figure who gave his entire wealth to Maharana Pratap, the ruler of Mewar, to fight Mughal emperor Akbar.
Under Indian law, launching any populist programme after the announcement of poll dates is against the code of conduct set by the poll panel. And that explains why governments tend to beat the ban by announcing such schemes sometimes a year before the polls.
Indeed, in Tamil Nadu, with its long tradition of sops and where assembly elections are due only in 2011, the ruling Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has already announced it would shortly start selling rice at Re1 a kilo. The DMK, is, of course, also keen to do well in next year’s Lok Sabha polls.
“Funds for schemes are primarily drawn from Centrally sponsored programmes and they are bound to be for women and the poor. The state governments are at the liberty to name them as they like,” says V. Krishna Ananth, a Chennai-based political analyst.
Experimental and quick on the draw, chief minister Vasundhara Raje’s government in Rajasthan has announced a scheme to help women who have finished teaching courses to start schools. Under this, the government will offer them free land and funds, depending on the number of students these teacher trainees are able to recruit. Assembly elections in Rajasthan will be held on 4 December.
Raje has also announced a five-day work week for state government employees and raised the retirement age of the staff of autonomous bodies to 60 from 58. Her government increased the monthly pension to freedom fighters from Rs2,600 to Rs6,000. The government will pay Rs15,000 to widows who want to remarry.
There are sops raining in chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Madhya Pradesh as well—for the girl child and the poor.
The government has launched the Annapurna scheme to protect poor families from food crises, says Manoj Srivastava, the public relations commissioner of the Madhya Pradesh government. BPL families will get wheat at Rs3 and rice at Rs4.50 under the programme. Meanwhile, under the Ladli Laxmi Yojana (a scheme for the girl child from poor families) the state government will deposit Rs6,000 a year for five years for a girl and she will be able to withdraw Rs1.18 lakh once she turns 21. “The government has also distributed Rs7,500 to at least 77,000 girls at the time of their marriage,” he added.
The BJP’s Raman Singh-led government in Chhattisgarh, where elections are to be held in two phases—on 14 November and 20 November—also seems to have done its pre-poll sop spreading well.
“The state government has introduced the chief minister’s food security scheme for BPL families under which they will get rice at Rs3 per kg. About 3.6 million families are expected to benefit from it. The government has allotted Rs950 crore for this and almost 50% of the state’s population are covered under it,” said N. Baijendra Kumar, secretary, public relations, Chhattisgarh. “We have extended the scheme to the physically challenged.”
The government has also introduced a novel scheme to distribute 2kg of salt at 25 paise per kg. “This is to avoid people cheating the tribals, who used to barter their precious forest produce for salt,” Kumar added.
The state government will also pay for the surgery of children with heart problems. It has announced 50% of seats for women in civic bodies, free education and cycles for girls of classes 9 and 10. To top it all, the state government has introduced a quiz competition in which the questions will be mostly based on the recent pro-poor schemes introduced by the government. A winner from each of 146 blocks across the state would be awarded Rs1,000 each.
The Congress party isn’t far behind in its efforts to hold on to power in this marquee state.
The government, led by chief minister Sheila Dikshit, has earlier this year introduced an Aap Ki Rasoi (your kitchen) scheme to distribute food to garbage pickers and beggars. The scheme, aimed at eliminating hunger by providing a free meal a day to a number of poor people, has the participation of non-governmental organizations and many companies, including HT Media Ltd, which publishes Mint, along with the Taj Group of Hotels, ITC Ltd and Le Meridien hotels.
Keeping an eye on some 500,000-strong Jain population and their influence in society, the Delhi government has announced minority status for the community.
Another initiative taken by Dikshit, Bhagidari, promoting government-citizen partnership in development, is also expected to offer some electoral advantage for the Congress party. The Dikshit government has also distributed provisional regularization certificates to residents of the unauthorized colonies.
Analysts say that such sops won’t make the real difference in electoral outcomes. “Of course, poll sops, especially those which have direct economic impact, may influence voters,” notes political analyst Sudha Pai of Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Voters use their votes keeping the overall picture in mind.”
Some voters see it differently, though. “Any good action from the government that would benefit the public will be appreciated and people vote on the basis of that,” says Usha Kaushal, a Delhi homemaker.
Graphic by Election Commission of India