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It's raining poll promises in TN but here's the catch

By N Sathiya Moorthy
March 17, 2021 19:05 IST
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Back of the envelope calculations put government expense on each of the new schemes promised by the DMK and the AIADMK at tens of thousands of crores. But then, neither party has said how they are going to also address the mounting debt burden either, says N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami on the campaign trail. Photograph: Courtesy, EPS on Twitter.

Now that the two Dravidian majors have come up with their respective manifesto for the April 6 assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, economists and political analysts are tearing their hairs to know the funding source for what is being acknowledged as the ‘Dravidian Welfare State’ model.

This is more so because the state is already burdened with a mind-boggling Rs 5-lakh crore debt and new sources for raising funds just do not seem to be there.

 

This time round, it all began with Opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s M K Stalin declaring for months that the party’s manifesto, when released, would be the ‘hero of this election’.

It was a takeoff from alliance partner P Chidambaram (then in the Moopanar-led Tamil Maanila Congress) describing Karunanidhi’s DMK manifesto of 1996 as the ‘man of the match’ in 1996. The DMK had promised free TV and cooking gas connections to poor families. AIADMK leader Jayalalaithaa’s maiden government lost that election for entirely different reasons, identified with visible lawlessness and abject corruption, but the ‘welfare state’ model had returned.

Egged on by Stalin, AIADMK Chief Minister Edappadi K Palaniswami (EPS) lost no time in unveiling new schemes, one after another, as he exploited the Covid lockdown period to deny rivals the luxury of long-distance travel across the state, and met with party cadres in district towns, using the ruse of meeting with local officials. His post-Covid monetary compensation of Rs 1,000 per family in 2020, as also increasing the annual Pongal gift from Rs 1000 to Rs 2,500 set the tone. There has been no going back, for either.

Coming up first, the DMK has promised Rs 1000 per month for woman-led households, and another Rs 4,000 lumpsum grant to offset some of the Covid-caused shortage in family incomes. He has promised assistance to MSMEs, youth and all other sections of the population. Coming a day after the DMK manifesto, the AIADMK’s in turn has upgraded most promises of the other by adding a five-hundred here or a thousand there, so to say.

The AIADMK has nothing to counter the DMK’s promise to reduce petrol, diesel and milk prices, which have got a life of their own and grow as if on their own. By choosing these themes, the DMK is seeking to target the ruling AIADMK in the state and the latter’s partner Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre, after studies showed how the common man has been affected by unbridled price rise, and the two governments are perceived as encouraging, not discouraging the same.

Targeting the first-time voters and other youth, the two parties have promised internet connectivity in villages, more jobs. Already, Tamil Nadu has free bicycle and laptop schemes for the student community, but also targeting their equally ambitious parents. And these schemes actually work on the ground, with minimal ‘lost-in-transit’ cases.

However, for the ruling party especially to promise more jobs has become laughable. Already, the decision to increase the retirement age for government servants is said to have been influenced by a funding crisis delaying payment of service-end gratuity, just as it has been delaying payment to government contractors and supplies for months and years now. 

In a way, the Dravidian poll promises fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s suggestions and the Election Commission’s recommendations -- or, so it seems. While ruling that neither can stop political parties from making futuristic promises to the voter, they were enjoined to cite the source of revenue, to ensure that they do not become ‘false promises’, and thus take away the seriousness of our democracy and democratic elections.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the case this time round, especially in the case of the ruling AIADMK. As DMK’s Stalin said, the AIADMK manifesto also seems to be a ‘xerox copy’ of the DMK’s, with no obvious thought being given to the funding source, etc. As for the DMK, insiders indicate that a specific promise to streamline the functioning of the public sector Tamil Nadu Minerals Corporations (TAMIN) aimed at generating more funds to feed the promised subsidy scheme.

As chief minister, Jayalalithaa proved that there is big money in minerals, when she nationalised sand-mining. This also became another source of large-scale corruption across the board, leading to shortage of river sand for the construction industry, which was already reeling under recession and high costs, over the past decade or so.

Yet, TAMIN may be a source, especially if the government is willing to and able to stop illegal mining of sand-based minerals. But, however much streamlining is undertaken, that alone may not be enough to fund all of Stalin’s dream promises. But then, neither Dravidian major has made even a passing reference to ‘total prohibition’, as excise income from nationalised liquor sales by public sector TASMAC is a milch cow. Only the Congress ally of the DMK has promised prohibition, which was a hot topic in 2016 polls after left-leaning women groups targeted liquor shops across the state for over a year ahead of the previous polls.

Back of the envelope calculations put government expense on each of the new schemes promised by the DMK and the AIADMK at tens of thousands of crores. But then, neither party has said how they are going to also address the mounting debt burden either.

As for state debt, the DMK has this time promised to set up a high-power committee to study the issue and suggest remedies. There is no mention of any kind in the AIADMK’s scheme of things. It is, however, anybody’s guess how any committee could suggest any course without including a tight-belt approach, among others. Such a course would fly in the face of the party’s new subsidy schemes, and cut into the huge spending on existing subsidies, which run into tens of thousands of crores.

The Dravidian welfare state has a long history, dating back to the Justice Party fountain-head’s empowerment scheme derived from ‘social justice’. Translated, it meant reservations for jobs and higher education, but it also came with earlier attempts at proving noon-meal to school children in the Madras Municipal Corporation area. The long-serving idea was to invest in social infrastructure as much, if not more than on physical infrastructure.

This idea caught on after the World Bank and WHO commended M G Ramachandran’s nutritious noon-meal scheme for all the Third World to adopt, but not before overseas commendation of the kind.

Post-Independence, Congress Chief Minister Rajaji tried and failed with his staggered schooling for elementary classes to find more class rooms, after Dravidian critics led by Periyar E V Ramaswamy succeeded in dubbing it as ‘Kula Kalvi Thittam’. Translating as ‘caste-based education’, critics said that the scheme was partial towards Rajaji’s Brahmin community, whose children could acquire more knowledge during the half-day they are in their homes whereas children from non-Brahmin artisan families would be toiling their way to become a literate carpenter or potter, like their parents. Rajaji’s know-all attitude refused to apply correctives in packaging the scheme and that was the end of it.

After Rajaji’s time, as Congress Chief Minister K Kamaraj introduced free education and mid-day meals for school children, to encourage those from poor families to enrol. There has been no stopping since. Successive Dravidian governments, especially those under DMK’s Karunanidhi, and breakaway AIADMK’s MGR and Jayalalithaa, have competed with each other to give practical meaning to the imported ‘welfare state’ model, for the beneficiary population to benefit from them, with each passing generation -- and, each passing election.

Well aware of the inherent shortage of water and electricity, which big-ticket investor-industries covet, the state has managed to replace them with skilled, peace-loving labour, and physical infrastructure like highways and housing. The idea is for the government to entice industrial investors to the state, and utilise the additional revenue generated to improve social infrastructure even more.

Independent of which Dravidian party is in power, the scheme seems to have had the desired effect, where the state should have been on the negative list for industrialisation otherwise. But today, with what seems to be an unthinking AIADMK approach to poll promises, manifestos of the kind may have lost the inherent charm of the past decades, for future generations in future elections.

Already, it took the DMK under Karunanidhi to re-inject people’s confidence in poll manifestos in 1996, after mentor Annadurai’s ‘one-rupee-rice-scheme’ of the historic 1967 had become a butt of political jokes for at least two generations of voters. In the election, which the DMK-led alliance would have won anyway, Annadurai promised three-padi, or 4.5 kg, of rice for the rupee, after the essential was selling at Rs 10-12 to the padi in the black market that very Pongal season, one month `before the elections.

In comparison, the DMK’s promises this time are centred more on voter sentiment than fiscal commitment. Or, at least there is an equal amount of both. Taking off from the sweeping LS poll victory of 2019, the DMK manifesto has promised a state legislation to end NEET examinations for medical admissions, assembly resolution against CAA, both deriving from the party’s political position on the subjects concerned.

Evaluating the mood of the voter, post-manifesto, EPS has since declared that the AIADMK too would press the Centre on the CAA issue. In the past, the AIADMK has held that the CAA did not affect the state’s people.

Post-manifesto, the DMK hurriedly added missed-out promises from the past. The main manifesto has promised a lot for the fishermen community, once a committed MGR vote-bank. Stalin has since come up with an addendum, which promises that a DMK government will not ban fishing in the seas adjoining Adanis’ Kattupalli port, off Chennai.

He has also brought back the eight-lane Chennai-Salem greenway onto the table, saying that they would not let it happen despite the required clearances under the EPS dispensation.

The DMK has also promised 75 per cent government jobs for locals, which the AIADMK too has since adopted. The latter has also talked about caste-based reservations in the private sector. Already, most manual jobs in the state, both in the organised and unorganised sectors, including agriculture and construction, depend heavily on labour from outside the state.

Hours after the DMK manifesto was out, critical sections of the social media teased the party, saying they have also promised 10.5 per cent reservations for Tamils in job postings in the US and concession for Tamils in NASA’s space flights. By oversight, the meme-creator had forgotten that the 10.5 per cent reservation is what the EPS government has granted the PMK ally’s Vanninar community in education sector (as different from employment).

But then, an anti-AIADMK meme asked how a party government plans to provide water and electricity for the washing machines that the party manifesto has promised families -- who already have actually benefited from free gas connection, free laptops and the like. Taking the cake however should be free housing for all, promised by the AIADMK, in lands to be procured by the government in rural areas and in apartment buildings in urban centres.

Already, the state has had a successful housing scheme, including slum clearance projects almost since Independence. More importantly, as far back as 2006 elections, Jayalalithaa had taunted bete noire Karunanidhi that there was no land to be had in the state, after he promised distribution of three lakh acres of government land to the poor.  According to her, the state had only 50,000 acres at the time.

Considering that the state has not as much money to pay even pending dues to suppliers, where does Team EPS hope to find the money to acquire private lands for its housing schemes, leave alone those for construction, remains a mystery.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist, political analyst and author, is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation.

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