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Freebies have worked for Dravidian parties. But their real success was pulling TN out of the socialist rut

Tamil Nadu assembly election manifestos always attract national attention with the two main Dravidian parties promising generous freebies like mixers, grinders, television sets, cellphones and largely delivering them. Rapid industrialisation from the 1990s has allowed TN some cushion to finance the lavish electoral promises. The battle of manifestos is no different this time too; both AIADMK and DMK have gone overboard. With free consumer goods, cash transfers, nativist appeals, and outreach to specific groups like youth and women, their manifestos span the entire spectrum of electoral populism.

DMK’s sops include reserving 75% industrial jobs for locals, one-year maternity leave for women government employees, banning the NEET medical entrance exam, subsidised food, fuel, milk and transport. AIADMK has promised free houses, washing machines and cable TV service, Rs 1,500 monthly for housewives, government jobs and prohibition in stages. The offerings clearly leave voters spoilt for choice but the fiscal calculations shouldn’t be going awry either: TN’s outstanding liabilities have grown from Rs 1.85 lakh crore in 2015 to Rs 4.05 lakh crore in 2020. A promise like prohibition, ostensibly targeting women, shrinks revenues which are otherwise needed to finance the freebies on offer.

With each election, the freebie basket gets more expensive: washing machines and free cable TV services are replacing cellphones and set top boxes from 2016. The washing machine, like the mixer-grinder, speaks to women voters and their productive hours lost to domestic labour. Yet, by specifically targeting women with such sops, politics also reinforces gendered roles in households. Monthly allowances to housewives risk feeding into the low women workforce participation rate.

Ultimately, politics must focus on improving education outcomes for greater qualitative outreach to women and youth. Promises like reserving jobs for locals and banning NEET militate against national interest and may not weather judicial scrutiny. Since 1991, TN has made giant strides in creating industrial corridors and liberalising professional education. Neither policy can be termed populist in the sense of finding a pride of place in election manifestos. But it’s precisely such policies which have had huge spillover effects in fostering employment, trained manpower and TN’s prosperity. Both Dravidian parties, which have admirably pursued continuity of industrial and education policies, must avoid the rising nativist tendencies in Indian politics and stay on top of the game of wooing global industrial majors to their state.

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This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.



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