Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur go to the polls in early 2022.
The line between a genuine welfare state and outright bribing of voters is getting increasingly blurred. Months before the states of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur go to the polls to elect new assemblies in early 2022, it is not just raining sops but also competitive freebies.
Free power, water
Take Punjab. Even before he was sworn in as the chief minister, Charanjit Singh Channi, on September 20, promised lower power tariffs and free electricity as well water to farmers and the poor.
Singh, named CM to quell infighting in the ruling Congress, also said all outstanding power and water bills of the last five years would be waived in a state whose finances are so precarious that it has struggled to pay salaries.
These promises come on the back of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) national convener Arvind Kejriwal announcing 300 units of free power to all domestic consumers in Punjab and an electricity bill waiver.
Kejriwal, who fancies his party’s chances in the northern state and is keen to expand AAP outside Delhi, has promised to continue with free power to farmers and the present rate of tariff for industries.
“This is not unusual. It started in the southern states, mainly Tamil Nadu, and now it is spread all over. I am, generally speaking, opposed to freebies, but some waivers to the poor are essential. The protests at offering relief to the rich is a lot less mooted than giving doles to people who need it,” says Sanjay Kumar, Professor and Co-Director of Lokniti, a research programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi.
In Uttarakhand, chief minister PS Dhami promised eight new colleges and an upgrade of the seven existing ones. To fight off anti-incumbency in the hill state, the ruling BJP has changed the chief minister twice in 2021. Dhami took over the job in early July this year following the resignation of Tirath Singh Rawat who had replaced Trivendra Singh Rawat in March.
Vocal for locals, unemployment allowance
Kejriwal has taken his sop opera to Goa as well. AAP will reserve 80 percent jobs, including in the private sector, for locals, he has said. This is in addition to a payment of Rs 5,000 a month to the families dependent on mining and tourism industries till such time these sectors, hit hard by COVID-19 restrictions, “normalise”.
The Delhi chief minister also said at least one unemployed person from each family in Goa will get a government job. An unemployment allowance of Rs 3,000 a month to the jobless is also on the cards.
'Budgeting' for election
The biggest and arguably the most keenly watched contest will be in Uttar Pradesh where the BJP will try to retain power. Blockbuster sops are expected to be offered in India’s most populous state, where the Adityanath government plans to bring a supplementary budget in November-December.
It will come ahead of the state assembly elections scheduled early next year. Additional chief secretary (finance) S Radha Chauhan, in a September 17 order, has asked all heads of departments to send in their budgetary proposals about the projected receipts and expenditure for the next financial year.
In May, the UP government announced free rations for the people below the poverty line and Antyodaya cardholders along with Rs 1,000 to daily wage earners a month.
“There is nothing wrong if the poor and the BPL receive rations, but if they are handed out in packets with mug shots of political leaders, that tantamounts to inducement,” says Kumar.
Former Union Minister and well-known economist YK Alagh say pre-poll handouts have become important now because the earlier strategic planning process has been abolished.
“Opening of colleges is not a bad idea at all. These things should be done in due course anyway, even though it is sad the way they are now being pursued,” he told Moneycontrol.
Alagh, however, is convinced that such sops don’t affect electoral outcomes. “That is the great thing about democracy. People will take what comes their way but will vote for whom they think is right. That explains why political waves occur from Jammu to Palaghat, which is so incredibly diverse,” he says.
Experts like former Reserve Bank of India chairman Raghuram Rajan have stressed on doing away with farm loan waivers, offered by several states, citing “enormous” problems for state finances and investment but to no avail. The imperatives of a politician fighting for public office are not the same as an economist’s detached worldview.
More freebies are likely as the elections draw close. “The trend is going to only grow,” says Kumar.