After the Tamil Nadu and West Bengal election results, Prithviraj Chauhan, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Hemant Soren must be cursing themselves for not being the J Jayalalitha and Mamata Banerjee of their states, who despite allegations of corruption and poor governance, turned out to be voter favourites.
On the other hand, Akhilesh Yadav, Harish Rawat, Parkash Singh Badal and Lakshmikant Parsekar must have got the mantra that blunts the edge of bad governance and opens the way to electoral success. The Assembly election results in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal don’t signal the triumph of democracy alone.
It is the triumph of a new model of governance, which effectively offsets damage caused by corruption and poor governance by distributing cash, goats, gold and free electricity.
Now a government in power can get itself re-elected without being too concerned about industrial development, employment, encouragement to free market, limiting the role of government and so on. All it has to do is become adept at populist posturing; then the urban resentment against faulty governance and political loot may become meaningless in elections.
The election results of 2016 stand for just the opposite of what the political change of 2014 meant to the Indians.
In 2014, voters not only gave a mandate against the corrupt administration of the Congress at the Centre but also sent the Maharashtra Congress-NCP government, soaked in corruption, and the misgoverning Haryana and Jharkhand governments packing. The same sentiment worked in the Delhi polls. However, the results of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have been disconcerting.
Going by the experience of 2014, it was not unrealistic to expect political anger against deep-rooted corruption and misrule in Tamilnadu and West Bengal. Jayalalithaa had spent time in jail on corruption charges while the Mamata government was deeply enmeshed in chit fund scams.
Is it that Jayalalithaa and Mamata have, in a way, “bought” votes by distributing free facilities and gifts and prevented the public mood from going against them? If we look at the policies of the two governments, the answer could be in the affirmative.
The Jaylalithaa government is the champion of populist policies. Amma Canteen (cheap food) and Amma Pharmacy can be treated as measures taken by a welfare state, but Amma cement, mixer-grinders, fans, cheap Amma water and salt stretch the idea of government welfare a little too far.
Amma does not stop here. According to the latest electoral promisesm, people will get cheap film theatre tickets, free laptops, mobile phones, goats, free electricity up to 100 units, subsidy on purchase of mopeds and eight grams of gold for mangalsutra for marriages. People did not doubt these promises, because in Tamil Nadu the system of delivering government facilities to people is substantially better than that in other states.
On the other hand, Mamata has established a large network of cash distribution schemes. Some of them include monthly allowances for jobless youth, cash for families getting their daughters married, allowances for imams, cash for organising Durga Puja and cash support to clubs. Certainly Mamata and Amma’s apparent generosity has helped in covering up their misgovernance and corruption. This was probably what Tarun Gogoi failed to do in Assam.
In terms of industrial investment and job creation, nothing has changed in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Yet this could not become an election issue. Mamata had risen from the movement against Tata’s Nano car factory (that is, against industrialisation) in Singur.
This past of hers has been a considerable deterrent for fresh investment in West Bengal. Even though investor melas were organised in West Bengal under Mamata’s rule, no investment or jobs came its way.
Tamil Nadu’s industrial decay has been in the news for the last six years. The auto hub developed near Chennai, which was the first choice of the automobile giants in the 1990s, started getting deserted after 2010. After the exit of Nokia, Sriperumbudur Electronics Park also lost its attraction.
Insufficiency of electricity may have lessened the glitter of Tamil Nadu, but Amma’s political sheen has not dimmed. She announced 100 units of free electricity for everyone right after taking oath.
Few victories are worse than defeats. The model for winning elections that Mamata and Jayalalithaa champion is worrisome because the pattern of resource transfer from the Centre to states has changed over the last one decade.
States are getting a huge amount of resources from the Centre without any strings attached to it. The financial autonomy coming to the states is justified, but enhanced resources at their disposal may fuel competitive populism, thus making radical reforms and control on subsidies a distant dream.
First published in dailyo.in