Tamil Nadu election: Will the best freebie win?

By Nidhi Dutt
BBC News, Mumbai

image captionPolitical parties have not just relied on the quality of their candidates in this election

Election results in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu are expected to be announced on Friday, but observers fear voters may have been swayed, not by the strength of the economic and political policies of major parties, but by promises of freebies and giveaways.

Ramya Mani's home is a small, dark space. There are only two items that catch the eye, one on each side of the rectangular abode: a gleaming gas stove and a tiny television.

Both are thank-you gifts from the incumbent DMK party, unmissable, unforgettable tokens of appreciation for being a faithful voter.

Ramya, along with tens of millions of people in Tamil Nadu, has been thanked by the DMK party in this way for the past five years.

Win-win voting

The practice of pledging gifts for votes in this southern state began in 2006.

image captionExperts say more than 15 million televisions have been handed out by the DMK Party since 2006

In a last-ditch attempt to salvage an all-but lost election the DMK Party - then in opposition - promised to give voters free television sets if elected.

And much to the surprise of their political opponents and fierce critics of the scheme, the DMK won.

So successful did other major political parties perceive the strategy to be, that this time round they too built freebies into their campaign manifestos.

From blenders, ceiling fans and washing machines to gold, home loans and cattle, a whole host of consumer goods were offered to voters in return for their support at the ballot box.

Television commercials even showed leaders of major parties handing out gifts and happy voters walking away with bags of grains, gold and laptops.

Voters admit the giveaways have been quirky and enticing.

image captionPolitical parties painted freebie pledges and lists of items of offer in villages like Nazarath Peth, an hour from the state capital, Chennai.

Those the BBC spoke to in and around the state capital Chennai said that parties had made attractive offers.

However most people were quick to add that they would have voted for their chosen candidates even if there were no material gains to be had.

Observers of this assembly election are more skeptical. They argue that the freebie-frenzy sidelined debate on issues of state-wide significance such as rolling power cuts, price rises and law and order.

S. Subramaniam Balaji, a Chennai-based lawyer who has taken his case against the DMK's TV-for-vote scheme to the Supreme Court of India, says that the superficial focus on gift-giving was disappointing.

But he adds what is of deeper concern is the potentially wasteful use of public funds.

Expensive freebies

Over the past five years the DMK Party has attempted to fulfil its campaign pledge and deliver television sets to households across the state. Around 15 million small screens have been provided.

Each television is worth around $30 (£18). Multiply that by how many have been handed out and the cost is astounding.

Mr Balaji says it is clear that the funds used to roll out these thank-you presents come from government coffers that should be used for more substantial things like infrastructure projects or social welfare programs.

Addressing the legality of providing gifts in return for votes Mr Balaji contends that it is bribery, an act prohibited under the constitution of India.

Others claim that some voters may have rationalised the receipt of gifts.

N. Gopalaswamy, a former chief of the election commission says that many voters view them simply as the return of their taxes in the form of goods and services.

The TVs-for-votes scheme may have cost the state of Tamil Nadu hundreds of millions of dollars, but observers say that bill may be nothing compared with how much it will cost the winning party to deliver on pledges of items like gold and home loans.

Mr Balaji warns the proliferation of such schemes spells economic disaster for the government of Tamil Nadu.

Show me the money

The state election commission claims it clamped down on the cash handouts to voters in the lead up to the 13 April poll.

image captionOpposition parties have joined the freebie contest

Just how much money it seized from various parties and candidates is unclear.

However local reports suggest that Tamil Nadu may account for 80% of all cash seizures during assembly polls across four states this year.

While the body has been able to prevent the movement of some funds, it has been unable to stop political parties and candidates from promising goods and services.

Mr Gopalaswamy says that this is because giveaways have been written into election manifestos, making them part and parcel of legitimate campaigning.

The former election commission chief adds that while the body has been more proactive in following the campaign money trail this time round, only so much can be done.

When it comes to freebies, the onus to stop the practice lies with voters themselves.

Mr Gopalaswamy points out that voters must decide to take, or not to take.

Bad habits

The enticement of voters with flashy giveaways may appear to be a localised issue, unique to Tamil Nadu.

However there are fears that the perceived success of the practice may encourage candidates and parties further afield to use such a strategy.

Mr Gopalaswamy agrees that some campaign measures used in the state may set dangerous economic and political precedents.

Those who have been campaigning against the gifts-for-votes practice say that, at a fundamental level, it is corruption.

They insist that authorities at the highest levels, particularly in Delhi, must be held accountable.

image captionRani told the BBC she was promised a washing machine in return for her support at the ballot box

At the heart of this issue Mr Balaji says is the spending of state funds on private assets. He says many millions of dollars are at stake in Tamil Nadu, and that freebies-for-votes exemplifies bad political and economic practice.

More interesting still is the long-term impact such campaign measures may have on the mindset of voters.

When talking about the freebies she has been offered, Ramya Mani says she welcomes them, because before she was given a television and gas stove, she had nothing.

But she adds that if the party she voted for does come to power that they will lead the state well.

Mr Balaji senses that voters are starting to see past the payouts.

He hopes people across Tamil Nadu, and possibly India, will start to tell the difference between superficial promises and real ones.

Big issues

The results of the assembly elections in Tamil Nadu may not prove to be as historic as those in states such as West Bengal.

But a change in government in the southern state may have an impact on politics in the country's capital, Delhi.

The incumbent DMK Party is a crucial minority in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progessive Alliance (UPA) coalition.

Critically, analysts say a change in government may affect the course of investigations into the second generation phone license scandal.

A. Raja, the former telecoms minister, is a member of the DMK and in recent weeks investigations have focused on the role of the party in the scam that may have cost the government $40bn in lost revenues.

The quirkiness of the consumer bonanza aside, experts insist there are very valid reasons to watch the outcome of this state election closely.