Friday, March 04, 2011

Politics of freebies promises a bleak future

The stench of corruption spreads quickly from Delhi. With the news that Tamilnadu chief minister’s daughter, Kanimozhi, is soon to be charged by the CBI, the money trail in Raja’s 2G scam seems to be established. The noose is tightening and DMK’s PR machine is working overtime to spread ‘sincere lies’ before the state election on April 13. Each of the major parties--the DMK and the AIDMK--commands the loyalty of about a third of the voters. The Congress, DMK’s junior partner, controls 12% to 15% of the vote and Vijaykanth, AIDMK’s partner, holds around 9%. The AIDMK has the anti-incumbency advantage but it will be a close contest. What should concern us, however, is another form of corruption raging under the bright Tamil sun that challenges our political morality.

The DMK believes it won the last election because it promised free television sets. To promise is one thing but the DMK government actually gave away millions of TVs! The sets were paid for from the state treasury--not party funds. In the coming election, voters are being promised fans, mixies, laptop computers, and 4 gm of gold for a poor bride’s mangalsutra. Tax payers in Tamilnadu are outraged but Kanimozhi asks, ‘what is wrong in giving people what they need?’ People wonder, however, if free TVs have a link to DMK owning a Tamil TV channel. Some greedily ask, will the next politician offer Rs one lakh cash?

It is not that Tamils don’t value integrity. They just don’t expect it from their politicians. They cynically believe that politics is the art of the sincere lie and cite the example of Dhritarashtra in the Mahabharata, who flourished through hypocrisy and nepotism. Chennai is not so different from Hastinapur and Tamil voters would prefer to be bribed openly. Populist give-aways have always been a great temptation. Roman politicians devised a plan in 140 B.C. to win votes of the poor by giving away cheap food and entertainment—they called it ‘bread and circuses’. Punjab’s politicians gave away free power and water to farmers, which destroyed the state’s finances and also the soil (as farmers over-pumped water). Hence, Haryana has supplanted Punjab as the nation’s leader in per capita income.

The idea of free TVs and mixies is morally troubling. The election commissioner has pleaded helplessness, saying that freebies only contravene the law when they are distributed before an election. Most of us do accept state spending on public goods. Roads, parks, and schools are examples of public goods as they are open to everyone. However, spending public money on private goods (such as TVs) seems offensive. It is legitimate for the state to equip schools and public libraries with computers but not to give free laptops to a section of the people. It is just as wrong to erect statues to oneself with public funds. But the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise. It has recently absolved Mayawati, arguing that the people of U.P. had elected her and can remove her at the next election if they object to her statues. There is a fine but important line between public and private goods.

Nothing quite explains Indian politics as the fact that we embraced democracy before capitalism. The rest of the world did it the other way around. India became a full fledged democracy in 1950 with universal suffrage and extensive human rights, but it was not until 1991 that it opened up to the accountability of market forces. This curious historic inversion means that we learned about rights before we learned about duties. In the market place, one has to produce before one consumes and earn a salary before one can buy a TV. In the same way, an election is supposed to enforce accountability in competitive politics. A voter should vote on the basis of performance. Instead, the Tamil voter is going to vote for a free mixie. Because democracy came before capitalism, Indian politicians have a tendency to distribute the pie before it is baked.

It is ironic that Tamilnad should be the setting for this corrupt practice. The state has high literacy and a reputation for being one of India’s best governed and most prosperous. It has had a succession of good administrations no matter which party was in power. Food rations actually reach PDS shops and NREGA wages are actually paid to the deserving! With prosperity, Tamils have outsourced menial work and are now learning Hindi in order to speak to their Bihari servants. But political morality evolves through experience.

Free TVs mean less money for investing in the future--in roads, ports, and schools. Eventually Tamilnad will pay a price—for without investment, growth will slow down. Ask the voters of Punjab. One day, the Tamil voter will also understand the trade-off—free TVs mean that their children will have a poorer future.