EXCEPT FOR THE odd occasion when a bunch of start-up investors and entrepreneurs gang up to con India into not accepting free internet access to the poor, usually we are smart enough not to refuse anything offered in the name of a public good. And that is necessary in a country where the system is designed to override the needy in favour of the cunning. Facebook’s Free Basics lost the public relations battle because the rural men and women who were actually going to be its beneficiaries had zero voice in the debate. Precisely because they had no internet access, they continue to not have it. Imagine if the fate of Free Basics had been on the principle of one person one vote?
Indian elections stand out as the Christmas of our democracy when the poor and ignored get gifts that no one would otherwise ever give them. It is the only time that they are pampered for something that they own, a vote. It happens occasionally because elections, unfortunately, have a schedule and that is a strong argument for not holding simultaneous state, municipal and Central elections.
Right now, the people of the five states going to polls have a spread laid out for them. Akhilesh Yadav, Arvind Kejriwal, Captain Amarinder Singh, Amit Shah are their Santa Clauses. The Samajwadi Party, which has just released its manifesto for Uttar Pradesh, is promising free medical aid, pension, pressure cookers and laptops, besides, of course, cycles, their party symbol. In Punjab, the BJP is offering free land and houses plus sugar and ghee. The Congress has promised young men and women 5 million smartphones, including a free usage plan for a year. AAP is offering them jobs and women-only bus services. Last year itself, the BJP government in Goa gave free data and calls to people on their phones. The giveaways are long and since all parties must do it, the voter is in the position of getting unasked-for bribes, and still exercising political conscience if he or she so desires.
Since India has only just risen above starvation levels, food is an inevitable component in election freebies and it goes back all the way to the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran whose pioneering midday meal for school children in the 1980s set off this trend. It led to the state’s politicians making more and more lofty promises and keeping them. It cost huge amounts of money, but the state still managed to get by without too much difficulty. The argument made against freebies is that it’s poor economics, but the Indian state leaks so much more in so many other places that it is malicious to start pinching pennies for those at the bottom of the pit. An election freebie is essentially a proxy social security initiative. Just about the only thing that the poor have against the government is their vote and if for pressing a button they can get a loan waived off, then it is a virtuous trade.