Home / Opinion / Do freebies help win elections?

Mumbai: Maharashtra’s deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar, who also holds the finance portfolio, is someone who frequently lands in trouble for his statements. For instance, in April 2013, he had made a comment about filling the dams in the state with urine and had to apologise.

“We are not saints; people of the state have elected us thrice and we will do whatever it takes to get elected for the fourth time," he said last week.

This is the confession of a politician desperate to win the elections. Pawar was responding to questions from reporters after presenting a 5,417-crore revenue deficit budget for fiscal year 2015.

This is the highest-ever revenue-deficit budget in Maharashtra at least in the past decade. The single biggest component responsible for this is a 20% subsidy for all electricity consumers. The subsidy bill will be around 7,000 crore per annum.

Many environmentalists have argued that providing subsidy for electricity and water consumption leads to inefficient use. Thermal power is the single biggest source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and with nearly 60% of India’s power being generated by thermal power stations, such subsidies aren’t wise.

Apart from the electricity subsidy, the Maharashtra government hurriedly on the last day of the budget session of the state assembly introduced a bill that made nearly 400,000 illegal hutments in Mumbai legal overnight.

The state govt introduced the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance and Redevelopment) Amendment Bill 2014 granting legal status to slums that had come up before 1 January 2000. The earlier cut-off date was 1 January 1995. The state government not only introduced the bill but managed to pass it unanimously.

Who cares about issues like emissions and putting Mumbai’s infrastructure under further strain, which is on the verge of collapse, when elections are around the corner? Indeed, what matters to most politicians is winning an election but empirical evidence shows these populist schemes do not necessarily ensure success at the hustings.

In the run-up to the assembly elections in December, the Ashok Gehlot-led Congress government in Rajasthan had launched a number of schemes such as free medicines at government-run hospitals and distribution of 35kg of wheat every month at 1 per kg. Despite that Congress received a historic drubbing and the Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) got elected with a massive majority in the state assembly.

Despite the Congress launching a string of populist schemes like Right to Education and Right to Food, not even ardent supporters of the party believe that the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government at the centre that it leads will win a third term in office.

So why do politicians launch such populist schemes on the eve of elections?

There are quite a few reasons.

First, their consciousness starts pricking them when an election approaches as they know that while in office they only worked for some special interest groups and did nothing for the common man. So, they try to redeem themselves by announcing some populist schemes.

Second, they feel the sops may help cut short their losses and may help change the results, if not entirely, at least in small measures.

Third, politicians announcing populist schemes think they don’t have to deal with the consequences of such schemes; that will be the next government’s headache.

The results of the recent assembly elections show people tend to vote for a leader whom they perceive as more credible among the lot and the one who they think will deliver the goods.

People hardly voted for Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party in the Delhi assembly election merely because of his promises of reducing the power tariff by 50% or providing 700 litres of free water daily. They genuinely believed that Kejriwal would deliver on the promises he was making.

After all, politics is a game of perception.

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