YEH FREEBIESTAN HAI MERI JAAN, writes Shekhar Gupta

We aren’t be­ing funny. Just read­ing the ‘Writ­ings on the Wall’ in Te­lan­gana, where KCR has re­de­fined hand­outs and wel­fare. Yet, it’ll take him more to win

Business Standard - - FRONT PAGE - SHEKHAR GUPTA

Be­fore you read the “Writ­ings on The Wall” in Te­lan­gana and its cap­i­tal Hyderabad, by far the fastest-im­prov­ing metro in In­dia, you check the colour on them. Chief Minister K Chan­drashekar Rao (KCR) and his party TRS have painted the state pink. It is as if only one party has fought this elec­tion.

In all my years of watch­ing elec­tions, I have never seen such a dom­i­nance of the vis­ual space by one po­lit­i­cal party. In Gu­jarat, it was about 20:1 for the BJP ver­sus Congress. Te­lan­gana, it is like 90:1 for KCR, and we are still hedg­ing. The square I see from my win­dow down­town has seven gi­ant hoardings wrapped around it. All KCR and TRS. All pink, his party colour. There are, I be­lieve, 698 of these in his cap­i­tal. And if his ri­vals have a cou­ple, I haven’t seen them yet.

The in­cum­bent isn’t both­er­ing to at­tack his ri­vals, nei­ther the Con­gressled Pra­jaku­tami (Peo­ple’s Al­liance), nor the BJP. It is a rare elec­tion cam­paign where the in­cum­bent is fight­ing en­tirely on his past per­for­mance.

He doesn’t even flaunt any new prom­ises. He is only paint­ing the walls, black type on a pink base, all nicely back-lit at night, with all that he has al­ready done, by way of free­bies and wel­fare. The mes­sage to his ri­vals is, match me if you can.

KCR’s self-con­fi­dence would put a ram­pant Vi­vian Richards’ im­pe­ri­ous stride to the pitch in shade. Are his schemes af­ford­able? Isn’t his deficit go­ing out of whack?

“Bak­was, sub bak­was” (rub­bish, all rub­bish) is his short an­swer. “What deficit,” he asks. “Which is the coun­try with the high­est deficit in the world, the US? Then, Ja­pan, and what about China. Peo­ple know noth­ing and talk...” Pro­fes­sor KCR de­liv­ers his short tu­to­rial on his Econ 101. Tamil Nadu fa­mously gave us our free­bie pol­i­tics, es­pe­cially Jay­alalithaa. KCR has taken it to an­other level. This elec­tion will show if it works.

My read­ers would know my in­cor­ri­gi­ble scep­ti­cism of free­bies. “Writ­ings on the Wall” has taken note of these in the past and cel­e­brated their re­jec­tion by the vot­ers. Ra­jasthan, 200813, fat­tened by the wind­fall of crude oil roy­al­ties from the Cairn oil­field in Barmer, be­came a lab­o­ra­tory for free­bies that an­swered all the fan­tasies of Sonia Gandhi and her Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil. But Ashok Gehlot’s in­cum­bent Congress was routed, by 163-21 in a house of 200.

There was much pover­tar­ian cel­e­bra­tion later as Jay­alalithaa won her sec­ond term, a rar­ity in Tamil Nadu. It was cred­ited to her pop­ulo-nomics: Free mixer-grinders, man­gal­su­trasand more. The fact is, there was a 13 per cent swing away from her and she would have lost if not for the di­vided op­po­si­tion vote.

Free­bies, there­fore, are yet be proven a ‘ pucca’ vote­catcher. But don’t say that to KCR, be­cause he takes pride in two things: His record of de­liv­ery and imag­i­na­tion.

As you travel through his state, you see the weight in his ar­gu­ment. He does have some give­aways like his ~100,000 gift to women on their mar­riage — called “Shaadi Mubarak” for the Mus­lims and “Kalyana Lak­shmi” for the rest. But he has some as­set-build­ing in­no­va­tions: Like his plan to build two-bed­room homes for the poor, sim­ply called the “2BHK Scheme”.

He’s build­ing half a mil­lion of these in his first term and you can see these as a most prom­i­nent writ­ing on the Te­lan­gana wall, in 11 storeys at Kol­lour near Hyderabad and in two storeys lin­ing the high­way pass­ing his con­stituency of Ga­jwel. What about PM Naren­dra Modi’s Prad­han Mantri Awas Yo­jana (PMAY), we ask him. “It’s a rub­bish scheme,” he says. “Where do the women even change in a sin­gle-room house that Modi is giv­ing?”

Can he af­ford these 2BHKs, at ~750,000 apiece? We can take note of some in­no­va­tions. He is giv­ing away gov­ern­ment land, waiv­ing tax on ce­ment, of­fer­ing free sand, has de­vel­oped the use of bricks made with sub­sidised fly ash from ther­mal power plants, col­lected the ~150,000 per dwelling that the Cen­tre pays for the PMAY and folded it into his ~750,000 cost. You can take a look. This is very de­cent hous­ing with bet­ter in­fra­struc­ture than any of Mumbai’s slum re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion colonies. A tax­payer shouldn’t grudge this.

There are oth­ers: Good, bad and cu­ri­ous. He’s built de­cent, free gov­ern­ment hospi­tals. There’s also a free am­bu­lance pick-up and drop for a preg­nant woman, ac­ces­si­ble through a call cen­tre. Each mother and baby, re­turn­ing home, are pre­sented a mid-sized suit­case, with cloth­ing and toi­letries, and some essen­tials and even toys to last three months. Of course, it is called the “KCR Kit” and comes with his large por­trait printed on it on a pink back­ground. At the hos­pi­tal in Karim­na­gar, we see all of these, talk to moth­ers and fam­i­lies, and they’re grate­ful.

The scheme that re­ally needs closer and open-minded ex­am­i­na­tion, how­ever, is the Rythu Bandhu (farmer’s friend). Farm dis­tress is a na­tional calamity, and many dif­fer­ent ap­proaches from in­put sub­si­dies to min­i­mum sup­port prices have failed. Te­lan­gana gives a straight ~4,000 per crop (~8,000) for a year per acre as sup­port to the farmer, ir­re­spec­tive of the land-size. Last year, it spent ~120 bil­lion on Rythu Bandhu. This has drawn much so­cial­ist crit­i­cism as even richer, ab­sen­tee land­lords “with hun­dred acres or more” also col­lect this.

The data tells us a dif­fer­ent story. Of the 5.83 mil­lion ben­e­fi­cia­ries (it’s a lot of fam­i­lies in a state with 35 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion), only 14,900 own 50 acres or more. In fact, just about 115,000, or less than 2 per cent of all ben­e­fi­cia­ries, own more than 10 acres. So, there’s juice in this idea if you can af­ford it. Can you? Spare me the bak­was, KCR is likely to say.

In KCR-onomics, there is some­thing for ev­ery­one: Twenty-one free sheep (20 sheep plus one ram, ac­tu­ally) for herd­ing castes. In­dus­trial-sized wash­ing ma­chines for the dhobi (wash­er­man) caste, fish-seed for the fish­er­men and so on. Scholar and caste-equal­ity ac­tivist Kan­cha Ila­iah Shep­herd ques­tions this as driv­ing the fu­ture gen­er­a­tions into caste-de­nom­i­nated av­o­ca­tions. These are pure vote-buy­ing schemes. Ev­ery­body loves a free­bie.

The ques­tion is: Do they also vote for these? Ev­i­dence so far is mixed, but pre­dom­i­nantly neg­a­tive. The Congress, we noted ear­lier, was dev­as­tated in Ra­jasthan in 2013 de­spite in­cred­i­ble hand­outs.

In Tamil Nadu, the home of free­bie pol­i­tics, par­ties have mostly al­ter­nated. In Pun­jab, the Akali-BJP com­bine was de­mol­ished de­spite the “atta-dal” (wheat flour and pulses) scheme along with free power, etc that bankrupted it.

Some of the states that keep re-elect­ing their chief min­is­ters are not the free­bie cham­pi­ons: Gu­jarat, Mad­hya Pradesh, West Ben­gal. In Karnataka, Sid­dara­ma­iah’s Congress splurged in a Jay­alalithaa-plus man­ner, but failed to beat the BJP. In Ch­hat­tis­garh, you could say that the nearly free rice that earned its gen­teel chief minister the nick­name “chawal wale baba” also helped him win two re-elec­tions. But now, his ri­vals are of­fer­ing even more.

Vot­ers are clever. They know that a free­bie once granted can never be with­drawn. Please note the many rude things Mr Modi said about the MGNREGA in the 2014 cam­paign. He has only kept throw­ing more money at it. They also ex­pect the chal­lenger to bring more: The BJP is of­fer­ing free cows here. You need more than free­bies now: Iden­tity, in­ter­state ri­val­ries, re­li­gion, na­tion­al­ism, and in state elec­tions, sub-na­tion­al­ism.

This brings us back to Te­lan­gana. We watch KCR’s son in a street-cor­ner meet­ing and then the fa­ther at the big one in Hyderabad’s pa­rade ground. “Jai”, they say... fists go up, and so many re­spond …“Te­lan­gana”. Now, “Jai Te­lan­gana” isn’t a slo­gan you can shout con­vinc­ingly from a Pra­jaku­tami stage, with Andhra’s Chan­drababu Naidu as partner. Free­bies alone may not win KCR a sec­ond term. With Te­lan­gana pride, his is a more for­mi­da­ble propo­si­tion.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY BI­NAY SINHA

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