Photo: PTI
Photo: PTI

How big a role does populism play in elections?

The slew of freebies promised ahead of the polls by AIADMK may be a key reason for its victory in Tamil Nadu

The nature of his job does not allow 42-year-old Arun, a sewer cleaner in Chennai, to carry lunch to work. Eating out is too expensive, considering his meagre earnings. It is the Amma canteens in Tamil Nadu that prevent him from going hungry on most days.

“Wherever I travel, I find an Amma canteen and eat my food. I have never been to a hotel in my life. This is the only place I know," he says.

Populist measures, such as the Amma canteen, a chain of government-run heavily subsidized budget canteens, is a common poll practice followed by political parties. Take this year’s Tamil Nadu assembly elections—right from 50% subsidy on two-wheelers for women, waiver of all farm loans, free mobile phones for all ration card holders, maternity benefits for women, eight grams of gold for women getting married, free laptops with internet connections for Class XI and XII students, enforcing prohibition of alcohol in a phased manner, hundred units of free power for households every two months to providing free set-top boxes for all those using Arasu Cable TV, J. Jayalalithaa led-All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam ( AIADMK) had put out an attractive manifesto replete with freebies, hoping to strike a chord with the voters.

The result: the AIADMK made history as it was for the first time in three decades that an incumbent came back to power for a second term in the state.

The party won 134 seats in Tamil Nadu despite a tough fight put up by rival K. Karunanidhi-led Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) which won 89 seats.

DMK’s manifesto had promised cellphones at subsidized rates, waiving off education loans for college students and 20 kg free rice per month among other things.

But do these populist measures have the power to influence voters into towing the line of a particular party?

“One cannot completely ignore the impact such promises have on people, but attributing a party’s victory solely to certain promises would be unfair. People who are deprived will never say no to such freebies. A grateful voter doesn’t mean a loyal voter," says Gnani Sankaran, a Chennai-based writer and political analyst. It is the negative connotation generally attached to such populist measures that Sankaran finds problematic.

“Most of these promises are eventually adopted as welfare measures by governments which are beneficial to economically and socially backward people.

For instance, the distribution of free bicycles to school girls is more of an empowering measure than a freebie. Providing WiFi, however, can be categorised as a freebie. Thus the differentiation between essentials and non-essentials is a must," adds Sankaran.

The extent to which populist measures were used in this election can be judged from the fact that in the first intervention of its kind, the Election Commission (EC) issued notices to the chiefs of both key regional parties in Tamil Nadu—the AIADMK and DMK—under the guidelines on the election manifesto of model code of conduct (MCC) on the grounds that their election manifestos do not “substantially" fulfil the guidelines.

In its notices sent to the leaders of both the parties, EC asked them to explain their stand on “non-compliance of the guidelines of the Commission and also reflect the rationale for the promises made in your manifesto and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirement for the same."

However, analysts say that the EC went out of its way by interfering in this matter. “It is the party’s responsibility to worry about the delivery of these promises and the public’s duty to monitor the same. EC, on the other hand, should ensure free and fair elections and not indulge in unnecessary interventions," argues Sankaran.

The trend of incorporating such populist measures or freebies in party manifestos started in Tamil Nadu when Karunanidhi first promised voters free television sets in the mid 1990s.

“Since then, the practice has been widely adopted by political parties across the country. However, it is the regional parties who have shown more interest in such measures as they are more aware of the ground reality and know the specific needs of the people," explains Sankaran.

This trend was visible in the election manifesto of the parties which fought elections in the states of West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Assam.

Regional parties like Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) which returned to power for the second time, winning 211 of 294 seats, promised free shoes and cycles to students, longer maternity leave, freebies for youth among other things in its manifesto.

However, the poll manifestos of national parties like the Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are mostly limited to free rice and housing for the poor. Interestingly, free electricity and food subsidy, which widely feature in the manifesto of regional parties like the AIADMK , DMK, Paattaali Makkal Katchi (PWK), do not feature in BJP’s manifesto for the state of Assam where it stormed to power for the first time ever, winning 60 of 126 seats. Thus, raising questions about the influence these populist promises have on voters.

“As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, the AIADMK has been returned to form the government in the state but the main feature is that the victory is for money-for-vote policy," said Sitaram Yechury, general secretary of the Communist Party Of India (Marxist), criticising such populist measures.

Dharani Thangavelu in Chennai contributed to this story.