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Who Will Win the Battle of Freebies in Tamil Nadu Elections? An Intense Race Is on

Tamil Nadu CM E Palaniswami and DMK president MK Stalin.

Tamil Nadu CM E Palaniswami and DMK president MK Stalin.

Both the AIADMK and the DMK have promised populist steps in their manifestos for the Tamil Nadu polls. But are such promises that stress the exchequer feasible?

Alliances are sealed, constituencies decided and candidates announced; the battle field has been set ablaze with high-voltage campaigns and manifestos making scores of promises ahead of the Tamil Nadu assembly elections on April 6.

It is a win-or-perish war between Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami, who is leading the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government in the state, and challenger MK Stalin, the president of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK). At the same time, the performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress will also be keenly watched, particularly where they are in a direct fight (five assembly constituencies and the Kanyakumari Lok Sabha seat).

The two national parties have squeezed out a liberal allocation of seats from their regional partners, but they must deliver at least a handful of wins, if the saffron scheme of setting firm foot on the Dravidian turf should be realised in quick time and the fading Congress should remain in public reckoning. But the Congress, in particular, looks set for a disaster with its multiple factions and lacklustre leadership.

As usual, all parties have dished out dreams aplenty for the electorate. The ruling AIADMK says it will, if re-elected, provide free ‘Amma’ washing machines to all households, government jobs to at least one person per family, ‘Amma’ housing scheme to deliver free houses to those not owning one, six gas cylinders free to all households each year and waiver of education loans, among other promises.

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Challenger Stalin has promised Rs 1,000 per month to every woman family head, 10 lakh jobs each year to eliminate unemployment, 75% reservation in jobs for natives, abolition of NEET for medical seats, bringing back education to the state list from the concurrent list, and price cut for fuel, gas and milk, among many others.

Yesteryear celluloid hero Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM) has tried to reach out to women voters, even as both DMK and AIADMK manifestos promise to increase maternity leave to 12 months (from nine months now).

Stalin’s manifesto must have stunned the AIADMK leadership as it has covered almost every segment of the society with hefty promises of eternal happiness. Besides, he has also promised a 10-year project to ensure all-round development and that there will be none below the poverty line. “This manifesto of false promises has been made just for the votes and will not be taken seriously by the public,” said former Union Minister GK Vasan.

The Tamil Manila Congress chief, an ally of the ruling party, is also confident that the DMK’s poll pledge will be flushed off the voter’s mind once the AIADMK manifesto, released late Sunday evening, sinks in. “I am sure of this because people have benefitted hugely from the several development and welfare measures undertaken by this popular government,” said Vasan.

But then, Stalin and his army have been screaming high-octane across the state that projects and public works over the last decade, when the AIADMK has ruled the state, are all soaked in corruption. The campaign speeches are replete with threats: that some of the prominent ministers of the present regime will land in jail once the DMK returns to power. The party poll manifesto has promised special courts would be set up to inquire corruption charges recently submitted by a DMK delegation to the Governor.

Questions popped up as to how Stalin as CM would find the money to keep his 500 promises considering that the state coffers have gone dry already. To quote from his own manifesto, the present EPS regime “has imposed a huge debt burden of Rs 9 lakh crores on the people”, besides rendering the state public sector enterprises “hopelessly sick with an accumulated loss of about Rs.3 lakh crores”.

Stalin’s manifesto also attempts to appease Hindus, as it promises Rs 1,000 crore to renovate old temples and consecrate new shrines, Rs 25,000 to one lakh people every year for pilgrimage, increased salaries for village temple priests, and archahar (priest) jobs to 205 archahars who underwent necessary training but have remained jobless for the last 14 years. By this, the DMK chief hopes to neutralise the BJP-AIADMK campaign that his party, swearing by the rationalist ideals of late Periyar, is anti-Hindu. Of course, he has balanced the religious interests by allotting Rs 200 crore for repairs and maintenance of mosques and churches in the state.

Economists and the urban elite cry foul that these Dravidian manifestos play fraud on democracy by offering hefty freebies as bribe for votes. And it’s a double whammy when some of the promises are delivered at a huge cost to the state exchequer, fed by taxpayers’ money, while the ‘beneficiary’ actually ends up being perpetually needy with his bowl refilled once every five years.

Still, both the rival majors have thrived on the strategy of freebies, thereby reducing the democratic process to a mere cash-and-carry business. In the process, they kept pushing the ‘price-tag’ on votes higher and higher each election. While freebies are paid by the state treasury, the cash for votes go from the coffers of the party and its candidates as part of the ‘parallel economy’, which gets replenished multiple times through bribes collected over the next five years. “We call it Vitamin-M, sometimes we say Gandhi power,” quipped a kazhagam dost, referring to the currency notes carrying the Mahatma’s picture.

To rewind the Tamil Nadu poll history a bit, the free colour TV sets and cheap rice promised in the DMK manifesto released by the then CM, M Karunanidhi, Stalin’s father, had dramatically undone all the media predictions and crashed J Jayalalithaa’s dream of certain victory in 2006. She thought she could repeat the record of her mentor, the late MG Ramachandran, by winning a second term just on the strength of her successful schemes and the deft handling of the 2004 tsunami. But the DMK won. It was a close competition of freebies the following poll and she managed to wrest power. The floodgates for doles opened and the weirdest inclusion in the manifesto fetched its author the best innovator award from party bosses.

The main parties have also announced candidates for their constituencies. While most of them are as expected, Kamal Haasan sprang a surprise by opting for the Coimbatore South instead of the much-talked-about Alandur in Chennai. Obviously, he was guided by the creditable score of his MNM vice-president, Dr R Mahendran, in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll in this textile city; he got a little over 1.4 lakh votes and was placed third after winner PR Natarajan (CPI-M) and runner-up CP Radhakrishnan (BJP). Besides, Kamal Haasan was among the first to demand justice in the sordid sexual assault case in Pollachi (about 40 km from Coimbatore) that grabbed media headlines early 2019.

The BJP candidate taking on the MNM chief is Vanathi Srinivasan, the national president of her party’s women wing. The DMK has allotted the seat to ally, the Congress, which has fielded its local heavyweight Mayura Jayakumar. Reports from the field suggest Kamal Haasan may have a clear lead as of now.

Another actor has bagged a ticket to contest. Ms Khushboo had been working hard in the Chepauk-Thiruvellikeni in Chennai as the BJP’s election in-charge for the last few months and seemed confident of getting the seat. But she has been fielded in the neighbouring Thousand Lights constituency, where she will take on Dr Ezhilan, a physician and the son of economist Dr Naganathan, who had drafted the manifesto of DMK chief Karunanidhi in the 2006 elections. Dr Ezhilan is also a popular face in socio-political debates on the Tamil TV channels.

Khushboo had been hoping to contest in Chepauk-Thiruvellikeni since DMK president Stalin’s son and actor-producer, Udhayanidhi, was expected to be fielded at this compact constituency once held by his grandfather, Karunanidhi. Udhayanidhi will breathe easy as the AIADMK heading the rival front has allotted the seat to the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a decision that has raised several eyebrows.

Disclaimer:The author is a senior journalist. Views expressed are personal