State Elections: Goats For Votes And India’s Sops SeriesBloombergQuintOpinion
The expression ‘getting someone’s goat’ or to annoy originates from the world of horse racing. Owners would provide a goat as a companion to calm the horse so it would race better. Competitors would bribe stable hands to steal the goat at night to upset the horse. The resulting poor performance led to losses for the owner thereby ‘getting his goat’!
The humble goat has also been deployed on India’s electoral grazing grounds to win elections. In April 2011, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam led by J Jayalalithaa promised in its manifesto four goats (or a cow) to each of the 30 lakh families living below the poverty line. The 11-party coalition got the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s goat and swept the polls winning 203 of 234 seats.
Did all those promised get the goats? As per the Tamil Nadu government, till 2019 40.88 lakh goats were provided to 10.22 lakh families. Intriguingly as per the Livestock Census goat population in Tamil Nadu went up by 17.5 lakh, from 81.4 lakh in 2012 to 98.9 lakh in 2019. The math, of poor families with goats, is fuzzy, to say the least.
Facts though have not cramped political imagination for sops sequels. This year, the Kazhagam cousins have ramped up the ante. The promise parade includes free homes, tablets, solar cookers, washing machines, six LPG cylinders besides the existing roster of sops. The idea of the season is direct cash transfers. It is a bidding war – the DMK’s promise of Rs 1,000 per month to every woman head of a family has been countered by a Rs 1,500 per month offer by AIADMK.
In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress manifesto promises universal income support for women, Rs 6,000 for those in the general category and Rs 12,000 per year for those under Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes, and Rs 10,000 for farmers besides student loans at a 4% interest rate. Across the aisle, the Bharatiya Janata Party has promised Rs 6,000 for fishermen and the ‘unpaid’ dues of Rs 18,000 to farmers. In Kerala, the Congress is promising ‘NYAY’, Rs 6,000 per month to the poor besides Rs 2,000 per month for homemakers. In Assam, the Congress manifesto is silent on ‘NYAY’ but has promised Rs 2,000 to housewives.
The acceleration of cash transfers, enabled by the availability of the Aadhaar-based direct benefit transfer mechanism, has been catalysed by sectoral crises – agrarian distress, income inequality, and poor job creation. Take agrarian distress. In 2018, Telangana ushered in Rythu Bandhu offering Rs 5,000 per acre per season to over 50 lakh farmers. Odisha followed suit with its own version for farmers – the Kalia Yojana assuring Rs 10,000 per year to farmers.
In 2019 the idea is the national scheme PM Kisan.
Initially, cash transfers were essentially token signaling instruments, used for political messaging with transfers to freedom fighters, widows, and priests et al. The expansion of cash transfers into helicopter economics is catalysed by flailing governance and is sustained by political expediency. The business model of the political enterprise is unique. The onus of funding populist ventures falls not on the parties but the unwitting voter who is also the taxpayer.
The specifics of Tamil Nadu illuminate the slippery slope. In the past decade, even before the pandemic, revenue expenditure (which is where the costs end up) of Tamil Nadu shot up from Rs 75,000 crore to over Rs 2.12 lakh crore, revenue deficit from Rs 3,128 crore to Rs 25,071 crore, and internal debt from Rs 1.18 lakh crore to Rs 3.97 lakh crore. It is not just in Tamil Nadu that the taxpayer is funding political enterprise.
Reserve Babk of India data shows revenue expenditure of all the states has spiraled from Rs 9.32 lakh crore to Rs 30.93 lakh crore in the past ten years. It now accounts for over 78% of total spending, leaving little room for capital or productive expenditure. Non-Development Expenditure now accounts for 27% of total expenditure.
In the early cycle of India’s electoral history parties grounded their promises in ideology and competing ideas of redistribution. In the 1957 Kerala elections where EMS Namboodiripad challenged Nehruvian politics, the Communist Party of India promised a law against the eviction of tenant farmers, relief from debt, higher salaries for teachers, and minimum wages for industrial and agricultural labour.
In the 1967 Punjab polls, the Akali Dal led by preacher-turned-politician Sant Fateh Singh promised a ceiling on holdings, cheaper fertilisers, seeds, and pesticides and introduced the idea of unemployment insurance.
Over the years parties simply shed the pretence of public purpose. In the post-liberalisation era, Tamil Nadu is verily the incubation lab of electoral sops. Electors have been flooded with promises for their votes.
Again what constitutes populism is contextual – such is the force of electoral impact that what was deemed populism two decades earlier is national policy. NT Rama Rao's 1983 scheme of rice at Rs 2 per kilogram and Prakash Singh Badal’s ‘aata dal’ scheme – flour at Rs 2 and pulses at Rs 20 per kg to two-thirds of the populace were original drafts of what was underwritten in the 2013 National Food Security Act which covers over 80 crore persons. Free power to farmers promised by Badal in Punjab got adopted across states despite its deleterious effect on state electricity boards causing three bailouts in 20 years.
The confluence of public policy failures, voter anger, and competitive politics has driven parties to craft new formulas to leverage public resources for acquiring market share to wrest power. The recent rush for unconditional cash transfers, essentially a futures option with no margin to be paid or private pelf dressed as benevolence, illustrates the phenomenon.
Indeed, in a recent order, following a public interest litigation, the Madras High Court asked the Election Commission of India why political parties should not be made liable to pay at least 10% of the money required for the implementation of election promises made by them in the manifesto.
The corrosive impact of poll sops has repeatedly come in for criticism. In a stinging rebuke in 2001, a consultation paper authored by the advisory panel to the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution observed “party manifestos, which are supposed to provide an indication of the direction of policy perspectives have in most cases become a set of promises, something for everybody so that more votes can be garnered.” It added that manifestos have “ignored the burning policy issues” facing the nation.
In 2013 the Supreme Court, following a PIL on the distribution of freebies by political parties, observed that “distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree” and directed the Election Commission “to frame guidelines for the same in consultation with all the recognized political parties” for election manifestos and include it in the Model Code of Conduct.”
That the issue is back in courts in April 2021 speaks volumes about the width of political subscription to sops and therefore the pushback by political parties. The Madras High Court has sought responses from the Centre on a law on making promises in manifestos and on scrutiny by the Election Commission. The bench, Justice N Kirubakaran and Justice B Pugalendhi, stated that parties should be prevented from making promises that add to the strain on the exchequer and observed that the monies could be better utilised to enable development.
The state of governance depends on the capacity of the state --and that rests on where the scarce resources are deployed. Think about it.
Five decades after the promise of ‘Garibi Hatao’, households are promised monthly cash transfers. In the sixth decade of Green Revolution, farmers require an income support scheme.
India’s expenditure on education is barely half of what the Kothari Commission recommended in 1964. Over a million teacher posts and 5.3 lakh police posts across states are vacant. The per capita expenditure on health in many states can barely fund two RT-PCR tests and two doses of Covid-19 vaccine. Seven decades after Independence less than a fourth of the population gets piped water.
In 1962, C Rajagopalachari, in a riveting note, ‘Our Mission’ on the values of the Swatantra Party, said, “We cannot touch the mass mind as easily as other parties can, who offer free gifts from the exchequer or from other people’s properties robbed by ‘legal’ process. We cannot excite them (the masses) with promises of egalitarian distribution of wealth, to be obtained somehow by somebody.”
The ideal neither stirred nor shook political conscience and over the decades the race downhill has only accelerated. What makes the ‘goats for votes’ political culture so corrosive is that there is no alternate narrative. India’s political class is fully invested in Robinhood politics in the quest for power.
Shankkar Aiyar, political-economy analyst, is the author of The Gated Republic: India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.