Do voters really think of that mixie when they vote?


Freebies play an integral role in Tamil Nadu politics. Illustration by Aruna Natarajan
  • DMK’s promise: A one-time financial assistance of Rs 4000 for all ration card holders
  • AIADMK’s offer: Free washing machines to all citizens of Tamil Nadu. 

This at a time when the state’s debt is 4.85 lakh crore, according to deputy chief minister O Pannerselvam’s budget speech. No details are available on where the money for these giveaways will come from.

Welfare measures or freebies?

The debate over how to distinguish welfare policies from freebies is an old one. Especially in Tamil Nadu, where the Dravidian parties pioneered many popular schemes over the decades that they have been in power.

Among the first such, was the one in 1967 when DMK founder C N Annadurai propelled his party to power by promising voters three padis (one padi is 1.5kg) of rice for Rs 1.

Another populist scheme, MGR’s brainchild, was free mid-day meals for school children, which has since been adopted by all states. But the trend of promising freebies like free colour televisions, free mixies and free laptops, among others before elections has been a regular part of the campaign strategy since the 90s.

A Surya Narayanan received a Lenovo laptop two years ago, when he was a student of Corporation school in Ashok Nagar.  His laptop today is crammed with his notes on commerce and science. Now, Surya Narayanan has got admission at a reputed veterinary college. “I got the laptop when I was in class eleven,” recalls Surya Narayanan. “It helped a great deal to prepare for competitive exams”. 

The free laptops have helped many such students to further their education and in their job aspirations.  Housewives have benefitted from the mixies and poor parents got to use the free cycles distributed to their children.

“These are welfare schemes that lift people from abject poverty,” says Sivapriyan E T B, a senior journalist well versed in Tamil Nadu politics.  

Read More: Panel discussion: What the city really wants from the new government

So, how does one differentiate welfare measures from freebies? AIADMK’s manifesto promise of providing free washing machines is a freebie, while promising a government job in a family is a welfare measure, says Professor Ramu Manivannan, Head of Politics and Public Administration department, Madras University. “The Public Distribution system (PDS) is a welfare measure, but offering incentives in the PDS, (like the January Pongal scheme) is a freebie.” 

Basically the freebies are incentives or enticements for voters. “It is nothing but robbing the people’s votes with material incentives,” argues Ramu Manivannan. “The winning party then uses the state exchequer to fulfil their promises. Welfare schemes, on the other hand, are sustaining activities primarily focused on education and employment.” 

“Freebies are a way of buying a vote. It can’t be justified. Political parties should rather focus on creating employment opportunities and increasing the state’s revenue.” 
Prof Ramu Manivannan, Head of Politics and Public Administration Department, Madras University

An alternative viewpoint

However, there is an alternative view on the subject. How does one decide the worthiness of a scheme? While laptops give students the opportunity to educate themselves and free themselves from the shackles of poverty, washing machines and mixies ease the work burden for homemakers. So why describe laptops and washing machines as freebies? Should not the fact that the poor are benefiting from these free gifts make them welfare measures?

Another factor that distinguishes freebies from welfare measures is utility. Most middle class voters who received these free mixers, laptops and colour televisions have sold them. “I bought a laptop from a student who did not need it,” said Nandinee R, a Chennaiite.

The argument then is that these promises should be specifically targeted at poor voters and not be universal. But the parties cannot afford to risk losing the chunk of voters left out of the scheme. “That’s when welfare measures become freebies,” argues Sivapriyan. “It is a welfare measure only if it benefits the deserving population. It is regressive, if it is universally distributed.”

Culture and politics

The freebie culture in Tamil Nadu is as old as Dravidian politics. As times change, the promises these parties make have also been changing. From mixies and colour televisions a decade ago, parties are now promising two-wheelers, mobile phones and washing machines.

But do these promises really influence the voter?

“My family has been voting for DMK for decades now,” said Niyamanth Mohammed, a resident of Old Washermenpet. “Even if other parties offer interesting sops, my loyalty would not change. The party workers know that and so they give us Nadhiya kammal (a type of earrings that has less than one gram of gold) ahead of the elections. They also don’t fail to give the goods they promised in the manifesto.”

That is outright bribery of the electorate, according to Ramu Manivannan.

Also, the choice of freebie varies with elections and parties. In a councillor election, for instance, candidates give blouse pieces to women. But in assembly elections, they are given sarees.

“While the DMK often gives earrings, AIADMK doles out cash,” said Sekar Parabhakaran, a school teacher, who has contested panchayat elections. 

And this freebie culture fostered by Dravidian politics in Tamil Nadu has since been adapted to suit their needs by parties in other states. Not by offering free washing machines. But offering sops like loan waivers and free electricity and water supply.

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About Laasya Shekhar 287 Articles
Laasya Shekhar is an independent journalist based in Chennai with previous stints in Newslaundry, Citizen Matters and Deccan Chronicle. Laasya holds a Masters degree in Journalism from Bharathiar University and has written extensively on environmental issues, women and child rights, and other critical social and civic issues. She tweets at @plaasya.