The great Roman satirist and poet Juvenal wrote of how the way to keep people content is to give them bread and circuses. We have a variation of that here, something we have had for a very long time. That of the imperious rulers handing out doles in the form of subsidised foodgrain, free electricity, cheap rations, even guaranteed employment. The leaders believed, and continue to, that people who get just enough to eat, just enough money to survive on, just enough to work their land would be content. All the handouts may be substandard, but the people would be pathetically grateful.
I am delirious with joy that the tide is turning. Even among the very poor. These assembly elections showed that throwing a few crumbs from the high table of power is not going to get the masses to genuflect in gratitude. Rather, they resent it so much that they turn against the munificent giver. And Rajasthan is a case in point. There is nothing Ashok Gehlot did not try and deliver on the cheap for people.
The state’s massive oil money went into all sorts of populist schemes from free medicines to pension schemes to schemes for women. And did the people kiss the hem of the leader come elections? No, they threw him right out with the message that their votes could not be bought for a few tidbits that the rulers were gracious enough to bestow on them.
In Chhattisgarh, chief minister Raman Singh, who has similarly given the boon of rice for Rs.1 a kg, got the fright of his life in a what turned out to be a very closely contested election. He made it through thanks largely to the ineptitude of the Congress in the state and not because the people were rewarding him for his largesse. There is a lesson in this for political parties, since they are all busy learning lessons after the assembly polls. Stop treating people as though they are beggars waiting for handouts. It is a cliché but the dictum if you teach a man to fish he can feed himself for a lifetime and if you just give him a fish, he has nothing when it is finished applies here.
We are dealing with a very different generation today. In the era of tall leaders, populist measures might have worked. There was a time when one leader symbolised the whole of India as perhaps Indira Gandhi did. Like the emperors, such leaders were expected to hand out boons to their subjects. Today, the whole equation has changed. People want access to services, they want access to jobs, they want access to goods. They don’t want any of this free, they are willing to pay as long as they are assured that they get what they seek.
This policy of instituting grand schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and others like it, with their notions of empowering the poor, smacks of huge condescension. They reinforce the idea that people are so incapable of fending for themselves that a benign State has to take care of them from cradle to grave. This form of dependency, this captive votebank, was the lifeline of politicians for years. Now people refuse to be patronised, especially the young.
With social media and 24-hour electronic media, people’s aspirations have risen dramatically. They feel demeaned to live on handouts. And today, employment for the lower socio-economic strata does not mean a sarkari job. The whole employment market has opened up and along with it, many avenues for entrepreneurship even at the rural level.
I am not saying that the very poor and dispossessed should not get State help. But the endeavour should be to give them a helping hand and then enable them to stand on their own feet. Many leaders have been genuinely bewildered by the fact that people have turned around to bite the hand that feeds them. This is not to understand the resentment built up in people when they feel that their wellbeing, indeed their very existence, is dependent on someone who wants something in return for his or her ‘gifts.’
These assembly elections, especially the stunning showing by the AAP, have shown that the dialogue between the ruled and ruler is now one of equals. The oleaginous pronouncements by netas that they are servants of the people are now being tested. In fact, the sops handed out just before elections in complete violation of the Election Commission rules too are no guarantee of votes. People merrily take the blankets, liquor or cash on offer and vote for whoever they like anyway.
Our netas now have to stop infantilising the discourse with the people. They now have to deliver on goods and services and opportunities, not paper over the cracks with a scheme here and a scheme there. The money, grain or medicine often do not even get to the intended targets so in effect they are just to make the neta feel that he is doing his work.
The shockers in these assembly elections will make netas treat people with respect, something they ought to have done a long time ago. If this pseudo-entitlements culture could be done away with, we could really grow economically as a nation. Discount politics is truly at a discount these days.