Friday, December 7, 2012

Who’ll pay for poll freebies?

Gujarat EDN
DNA  01SEP2012

Gujarat is projected as the most prosperous, wealthy and developed state in the country. On many an occasion, chief minister Narendra Modi unabashedly compared Gujarat’s growth rate with that of China — often labelling Gujarat as India’s growth engine. All these tall claims, however, are being shattered when the rival parties, which are targeting the underprivileged class in the state, are getting overwhelming response.

This implies: One, the state is not as prosperous as it is being projected; or two, like all discount sale schemes in the state, freebie-crazy vote-bank is waiting for its share. Truth lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

In the past too, Indian vote-bank has enjoyed all types of freebies. However, Gujarat was never bitten by the frenzy.

Riding high on the crest of anti-Indira Gandhi wave soon after her infamous imposition of emergency, Gujarat got its first-ever non Congress government. Keshubhai Patel later succeeded banking on the vote for change against corruption and for a Hindu party. He promised his electorate a “bhay, bhukh ane brashtachar mukt praja” (people who are free from fear, hunger and corruption). Shankarsinh rode out high on a rebellion. But, he was voted out of power on successful innocent appeal by Keshubhai, “What is my fault?” However, after the unceremonious exit of the Patel stalwart, the baton passed on to Narendra Modi, who’s still sprinting hard and fast. In the Hustings that happened soon after Godhra carnage and subsequent communal riots, Modi romped home with a commendable win, and again in 2007 by projecting himself as a man of development who can bring prosperity to Gujarat.

In the last 10 years Gujarat has evolved as a major industrial hub with success scripted in automobiles, crude oil refining, and chemical sectors. In agriculture it is the largest cotton producing state in the country besides being one of the largest wheat producers. State has seen sea change in its industrial, urban and tertiary infrastructure too. Putting aside the staggering MoUs, amount of actual implementation due to Vibrant Gujarat, state has no doubt grabbed more eyeballs than ever before.

However, the dream sequence is ending. The first blood was drawn by Congress when it announced Ghar Nu Ghar scheme for urban homeless. In a week-long exercise 27 lakh people enrolled for the scheme. Tasting success, it then announced a free 100 square yard plot for housing for the rural homeless too — enrolment for which is yet to begin. Buoyed by its people’s acceptance, Congress went on to announce freebie after freebie in its 7-point agenda — cheaper laptops to a lakh jobs besides free medicines — all with a rider, “after we come to power.”

Taking a leaf out of this, Patel stalwart’s fledgling party, Gujarat Parivartan Party (GPP), too announced free distribution of 110 square yard plot to rural homeless. It went on to announce free electricity for the entire rural establishment – household, school, colleges and agriculture.

GPP did not stop there. Keshubhai also promised two free sarees to BPL women in the state! If that’s not covering all, GPP is also likely to announce many sops for urban poor and lower middle class too.

Back to the BJP, the poster boy Modi is wooing youth with his Vivekananda Yatra. If the 4 new districts are not sufficient gifts, he has announced more wages for home guards, increase in upper limit for government jobs, increase in floor space area in Rajkot and Jamnagar besides 50% subsidy to scarcity hit farmers and waiver of interest loans. The list is still in the making. The battle lines are drawn and phalanges thrown, but the debate over freebies, which is the brahmastra for luring voters, rages on.

In Tamil Nadu, the cash and kind vote-bank politics between Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi has scaled to new highs in last two decades. Both have made promies which will cost Tamil Nadu Rs1,00,000 crore. Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party scrapped Mayawati’s clout with a clean sweep in the recent elections. But SP’s reclaiming of power is going to cost the state exchequer Rs11,000 crore a year over and above a one-time cost of Rs10,000 crore.

It is ironical that after it took steps to control expenditure by way of curtailing its subsidy bill on cooking gas and diesel, government at the Centre is almost on the verge of losing it all.

Gujarati politicians are hurtling down the wrong lane. Either the one at the centre is wrong or the concept of freebies itself is untrue — the truth also lies somewhere between these two possibilities. The concept of providing assistance in itself isn’t wrong as it redistributes share of economic resources – from one who has it extra to someone who is not having it. However, basket subsidy nurtures corruption. Burden of subsidy should not come to someone who pays his taxes on time.

Gujarat 2012 elections are going full steam in the same direction. Lowering taxes on petrol, diesel or other fuel items to free houses and electricity are recurring expenses. GPP’s poll promises will cost Rs8,300 crore so far and is counting. Congress sops are worth half of these. Even politicians should also contribute from their own pockets by promising to work in coordination with each other.