The winds of change are blowing over Tamil Nadu. The days when poor voters could be fobbed off with a mere colour TV at election time are long gone. "What is the point of a TV without a cable connection?" thundered an aggrieved voter at Karambakkudi. Voters are demanding free internet connections for the free laptops, free fruits and masala for use in the mixer-grinders and free animal feed for the free cows. "I'm sick and tired of having free rice for lunch," said a labourer at Kalugumalai. He demanded free biryani instead.
But the biggest protests have come from the mothers of girls of marriageable age, who have been promised a mangalsutra and Rs 25,000 as contribution towards marriage expenses. "Do they think we are paupers, to marry our daughters off with just Rs 25,000?" raged a fisherwoman. "Merely providing money is not good enough, they need to provide free bridegrooms as well," said an old crone who said she had been waiting to get married for decades.
While political parties are mulling over a scheme to provide free husbands, this has caused a backlash among the men. "In these days of gender equality, we demand they give us free wives too," complained a chap from Gummidipoondi. But this demand has, unfortunately, had a ripple effect. "If they give free wives to the older guys, why can't we have free girlfriends," said a youth from Thoothukudi. His friend pointed out that a girlfriend, free or not, was useless without a disco to take her to and demanded that political parties should open one in Thoothukudi immediately.
But civil society activists caution against trusting the political leaders. "Once they come to power, they may renege on their promises," said an activist, "so we need to ensure that getting these freebies becomes a constitutional right." He threatened to undertake a fast unto death for a Right to A Free Mixer-Grinder Act, a Right to Free Cows Act and a Right to a Free Girlfriend Act. Voters have also demanded that, given the vibrant impact it has on democracy, elections should be held in Tamil Nadu every year.
"I have had to wait five agonising years before being promised a free house," said a guy from Pudukottai, "and imagine my distress at having to wait another five years for the free furniture."
Some believe that, instead of giving people freebies, it would be best to give them cash. An MBA from Padirikuppam pointed out that not everybody wants free laptops and several ladies have already threatened they will trade in their free husbands for cash in the second-hand husband market. "For instance," he elaborated, "the underworld vote will scarcely be attracted by free rice. But if we give them cash, they can buy useful things like AK-47s."
Incidentally, there has been large-scale immigration of people from other states into Tamil Nadu, to take advantage of the freebie schemes. "My daughter got a free bicycle in Bihar last year and after getting free blankets in Assam, I have now shifted to Tamil Nadu for a free cow," said a Bihari from Nattarasankottai, adding he would soon be going to Bengal to pick up a few free pipe guns.
So which combine will win the elections in Tamil Nadu? Will it be the mixer or grinder plus free rice combination, or the mixer-plus-grinder-plus-ceiling fan-plus-free mineral water group? Or will the free cows tilt the scales? The world waits with bated breath as voters make this hugely important decision this week.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint. The views expressed by the author are personal.