The debate around sops stinks of elitism. It betrays a cultural divide and shows a discriminatory attitude
By Karti Chidambaram
THERE IS a lot of concern about sops being doled out before elections. I believe the word ‘sop’ itself is used crudely. It stinks of the kind of elitism that does not understand universal needs and concerns. The kind of elitism that does not call reducing the cost of aviation fuel, slashing income tax from 30 to 10 percent or giving a Rs 45 crore tax waiver to the ICC (to conduct the World Cup in India) as sops. But if you give colour televisions to the rural population of Tamil Nadu, the debate will not stop. It betrays a cultural divide, a discriminatory attitude towards simple benefits that are directly given to the people of a lower socio-economic class. Addressing the needs of people who are not like us, not from our background, does not mean it is bad politics or bad economics.
Sops are not just part of a vote-catching exercise. In Tamil Nadu, parties started it as a way of fulfilling their socialistic agenda. It began as a method of distributing access to various goods and services, and it was done midterm too, when elections were nowhere in the picture. We can argue that welfare is about enabling someone to buy their own television instead of giving it away free of cost, but sops are simply the chosen methodology in Tamil Nadu. Like any successful welfare scheme, it eliminates the middleman and cuts through the stodgy bureaucracy.
The anti-sop argument comes from the upper middleclass intelligentsia and has discriminatory overtones. Why should only the benefits of people without the power to articulate in English be challenged, and called a sop, bribe and other derogatory things? In that sense, every election promise has an ulterior motive. It is a bribe.
It is indeed unethical to distribute money and goods during campaigns or to promise to ex-communicate people who belong to another religion. Those are unconstitutional promises. However, sops are not doled out before the votes are in. It is part of a party’s mandate, and it can be implemented only after it acquires legislative muscle, when the party is in office.
Sops are not merely part of a vote-catching exercise. In Tamil Nadu, it fulfils a socialist agenda
It may be a kind of economics the middle class does not understand because it has access to regular incomes, loans and education. When markets were soaring, the smart investment bankers on Wall Street derided State intervention, but in the end, they needed the US government to bail them out with taxpayers’ money. So let us not view economics simply as men drawing pie charts and balance sheets do. For the poor section of voters, rice at Rs 1 per kg is simply a government doing its job.
I do not believe for a moment that sops are the only parameters people keep in mind while voting. People look at candidates, alliances, local issues and the overall track record of the administration. In Tamil Nadu, elections are very presidential; people vote according to the chief ministerial choice. Fighting an election, fielding a candidate and deciding your party’s manifesto are all complex procedures of taking stock of people’s expectations.
People are realistic, let us not underestimate them. They do not expect us to transform their world overnight with a magic wand, but they do expect us to be truthful. People will remember and reward a promise met, just as they will punish ruthlessly if you default. When M Karunanidhi announced the so-called sops in 2006, Jayalalithaa ridiculed him saying that it is unrealistic, that he is fooling the voters. But after the DMK won, the party has by and large implemented these things. Jayalalithaa has aped the strategy this election. But it is never about the promises alone. It’s a question of credibility — who keeps the promise and who doesn’t. People evaluate that everyday.
Today, it might look like it’s not possible for parties in Tamil Nadu to contest polls without offering these benefits. But there is only a limit to meaningful things you can give. After a point, it gets discounted. Until that happens, this will go on.