Last week Mint reported how Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa moved a step closer to fulfilling one of her election pledges after the Indian unit of Chinese personal computer manufacturer Lenovo Group Ltd emerged the lowest bidder to provide free laptops to students of government-aided high schools and colleges through the five-year term of this administration. Predictably, it has revived the debate over populism, especially since the chief minister has, among other things, also promised a free mixer, grinder, fan and 20kg of free rice every month.

Several commentators had in fact credited her sweeping electoral victory in the recent election to the state assembly to the freebies that her party had on offer. Though it may be tempting to summarize a verdict in this pat manner, it would be a mistake to do so. If electoral life was such a simple game of give and take, then many political parties would not have found themselves relegated to the opposition benches.

Supporters of Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha at Bangalore in this file photo. PTI

Also Read | Anil Padmanabhan’s earlier columns

Take the offer of 20kg of free rice—by the way, it is way less than the 35kg that was offered by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). After almost three years of double-digit inflation, it is just got back into the same territory last week, free rice is a necessity. It hurts all, but the poor, the worst. The policy action is also a recognition that there is precious little that is (or being) done to curb inflation by the Union government; except, of course, hold out promise that it would subside in the next few months (the latest claim promises some easing by March). It is a bail-out to the poor, akin to those regularly proffered to industry—but never ever called a subsidy.

Similarly, the idea of a mixer and grinder as a freebie has appalled many. It does sound populist on the face of it. But is it? It is clearly targeted at women. Anyone who understands southern culinary practices, especially in Tamil Nadu, the chore of grinding (the various lentils to make dosa dough or creating the masala mix) is a prerequisite to prepare a meal. At the moment, it is done using a stone (my mother operated one late into her years till my father purchased a grinder for her in the 1980s). Looked at it this way, it is not a freebie; instead, something that will release these women from the drudgery of a routine and allow them more time, either to join a regular work force or in attending to their children.

And, finally the free laptop. The manifesto of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) had promised free laptops to students. Again viewed from a certain prism, it may seem unwarranted: free food yes, but a laptop? Fifteen years ago, when we first started using cellphones, it was considered a luxury, and, often, a status symbol. Today, there are more than 700 million subscribers and it is considered a necessity (check with your kirana store and you would find that phone coupons of the value of 5 and 10 see the highest turnover). It is not just a means of communication (a lot through the ingenious means of a missed call), but also, in many instances, a cheap alternative source of entertainment—not to play games, instead, as a mode to listen to radio and, in some instances, watch movies that can be downloaded to it.

On Internet use, India is somewhat exactly where it was a decade back with cellular phones. According to the Information Economy Report, 2011, released last week by the United Nations, Internet penetration in India is abysmal—less than 10 in 100 Indians access it, whereas in the US the ratio is four out of five; though the good news is that the proportion of Internet users more than doubled from 2.39 per 100 inhabitants in 2005 to 7.50 in 2010.

The digital divide in India is forbidding, yet it is clear that access to the information economy is the key to the future. Laptops, which students could never afford otherwise, provide a means to fulfil their aspirations. There are no guarantees, of course, but at least there is the wherewithal.

Of course, critics are right that this will lead to fiscal pressures on the state government. But then policy planners are paid to think of ways to shore up resources and not whine about circumstances. The alternative is worse: unfulfilled aspirations could lead to a social upheaval that India can ill afford.

Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome atcapitalcalculus@livemint.com

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