Freebies for votes

| Updated on March 17, 2021

Tamil Nadu’s competitive clientelism goes against free and fair elections

From gold thalis and mixer-grinders in the past, competitive clientelism in Tamil Nadu has escalated this election season on the home appliances and electronics front — with the AIADMK proffering washing machines and free-of-cost cable TV connection and the DMK laying out tablets and computers. The ruling party added ₹1,500 per month assistance to women — over the ₹1,000 promised by the DMK. Promises on job quotas were common in the two rivals’ manifestos released within 24 hours of each other last weekend. Notwithstanding the exceptionalism that marks the patron-client polity in Tamil Nadu, the sheer scale of it this year is remarkable.

The Election Commission’s rather genteel guidelines in the model code of conduct have been of little avail, although they do dictate that the manifestos indicate the means by which the tall promises shall be met. Already, the Madras High Court has issued notices to the EC on March 10 on a plea by a Coimbatore-based NGO that the EC has, in the past, “censured” the State’s political parties on extravagant manifestos, but only after the elections. In the matter of cash, liquor, coupons and freebies in elections, Tamil Nadu seems to leave most other States way behind. More than 50 per cent, that is, 118 out of 234 Assembly constituencies in the State fall under what the EC characterises as “expenditure sensitive” (based on its observations on poll campaigns). This is staggering when contrasted against the high-voltage contest in West Bengal where this number totals up to less than 16 per cent, or 47 out of the total 294 constituencies, and Kerala where the number stands at 25 out of 140, about 17 per cent. At least two recent elections in Tamil Nadu, for the Vellore parliamentary constituency in 2019 and the RK Nagar (Chennai) Assembly constituency in 2017, have been rescinded due to exorbitant and unaccounted for cash flows and freebies doled out by the rival political parties.

Such unabashed clientelism is loaded against new entrants. By creating entry barriers, it is antithetical to free and fair elections. Delhi has witnessed the dramatic rise of a rank newcomer, Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) whose first brush with electoral power was largely driven by crowd-sourcing resources. In Tamil Nadu, even a superstar of Rajnikanth’s appeal shies from treading into a territory skewed in favour of the entrenched players. Kamal Haasan, with assets over ₹176.9 crore, has had to borrow ₹25 crore and work overtime in TV franchises to stay afloat. It is a moot point whether the similar economic policies of established political players have ensured industrial growth with stability — with investors seemingly confident of no incumbent reneging on commitments negotiated by his predecessor. Elections in Tamil Nadu can certainly do with some institutional scrutiny. And, hopefully, people will soon begin to see the reality of these giveaways — that they come from the taxes that they themselves pay.

Published on March 17, 2021

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