The Hindustan Times – A devious strategy: Using development projects as poll carrots is self-centred

Op/Ed, 24 December 2016. The Panna Reserve Forest in Madhya Pradesh is easily one of India’s best tiger reserves. I have been there a couple of times but it was only during a recent visit that I had the opportunity to visit a British-era dam built on the River Ken that flows through the forests.

The interesting aspect of the structure is that you can enter its belly and walk from one end to the other. The walk is delightful: One can hear the water crossing the barrier and falling on the other side, and also watch the non-stop ‘water curtains’ through its windows.

At one end of the tunnel is a plaque with some details about the ‘Gangau Dam and Reservoir’, which was built in 1915 by Messrs Ford and Macdonald Ltd. There are a few other details on it: The names of the construction agent, the chief engineer, executive engineer, the supervisor and other who built the structure.

While we were reading the names, a colleague commented: “No names of politicians, can you believe it?” I couldn’t. It was incredible indeed; in India, we seldom see structures that have the names of those who toiled to build it; it is always a bureaucrat or a politician who runs away with the honours, making sure that people feel indebted to them forever.

This desire to make people feel indebted to the politician surges before elections: For example, look at what’s happening in poll-bound Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. Recently, UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav launched 5,500 projects in six hours in a bid to woo voters.

Among the projects he launched (his name will etched on the plaques for sure) there are schools, bridges, mandis, roads etc.

A few days later, several newspapers carried an advertisement issued by the Uttar Pradesh government, announcing a 382-km six-lane expressway, the longest in the country (until now the Lucknow-Agra expressway is the longest), which will pass through Azamgarh, Mulayam’s parliamentary constituency, to reach Ballia, on the Uttar Pradesh-Bihar border.

In Punjab, things are no different: In one week, Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal doled out Rs 40-crore developmental grants during his favourite ‘sangat darshan’ exercise in three reserved segments—Nabha, Chamkaur Sahib and Bassi Pathana—where the party has fielded fresh faces.

Almost every week, the Badal cabinet is meeting and taking plethora of populist decisions. Sources say every financial resource is being squeezed, including loans from banks.

The Punjab Infrastructure Development Board, that funds most of Badal’s pet projects sought the nod for more loans stating that its financial health had collapsed. “This carpet bombing of sorts (read inauguration spree) is aimed at building positive public perception and deflecting negative public opinion,” an aide of Sukhbir Badal told HT.

Last week, the chief minister’s daughter inaugurated Rs 102-crore bridge over the Sutlej river in Tarn Taran. The construction of the bridge, which links Tarn Taran and Ferozpur districts and lessens the distance between many areas of Majha and Malwa regions, began in 2011.

Its foundation stone was laid by Badal Senior, with an eye on the 2012 assembly elections. It was to be completed within two years. However, even after more than five years, the project is still incomplete.

Then, of course, the queen of pre-poll gifts to voters was the late Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa: From mixer-grinder to free phones to free gold, Amma’s kitty had it all.

The excessive use of freebies has even led the Supreme Court (the judgment in S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Government of Tamil Nadu & Others on July 5, 2013) to intervene and ask the Election Commission to frame rules regarding what political parties can promise in their manifestos.

Do these freebies work? It’s unclear. A research by the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, US, shows that these policies have little effect either on voter turnout or on support for a party.

First, if populism (quotas or freebies) won elections, incumbent parties and their candidates would be less likely to lose, argues the study. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests that incumbents face a big disadvantage in India, that is, their chances of re-election are lower than non-incumbents.

Despite there being no definite link between freebies and wins, sops have become are part and parcel of Indian elections. But what I find devious and extremely self-centred of politicians is the manner in which they hold on to critical infrastructure projects till the end because they want to reap poll benefits.

These projects, bridges, schools, roads, shouldn’t be even called sops because they are actually necessities and shouldn’t be put on hold for any reason.

Isn’t it sad that instead of building school infrastructure as and where required with the education cess you and I pay, politicians use them as carrots for votes?

The way politicians hand out these crucial development projects, which should have been done elections or no elections, only goes to show that India has a long way to go before becoming a democracy in letter and spirit, “free and fair polls” notwithstanding.

With politicians/State, we still continue to have a patron-client relationship.


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