One thing you have to say about South Indian politicians: they sure keep their word. Before knocking J. Jayalalithaa off her chief ministerial perch, DMK leader M. Karunanidhi had promised voters that if he was elected to power, his government would ensure that everyone below a certain income level in Tamil Nadu would be given a colour television set — gratis. Last week, Mr Karunanidhi chose the birth anniversary of his mentor, C.N. Annadurai, to show that he had put the exchequer’s money where his mouth was before the polls. The sheer symbolism of a TV set with a yellow ribbon tied around it to emphasise its status as a gift was powerful indeed.
The first phase of the ‘hamper’ campaign, catering to 30,000 poor families, has just started. And in the coming months, 2.5 million sets will be distributed at a cost of Rs 1,060 crore. Not everybody is happy about the expensive, state-funded gimmick. Ms Jayalalithaa is fuming — and not because she does not qualify for the 14-inch object of desire. She thinks, like many others, that there is more to it than a sops-for-votes scam. Mr Karunanidhi, whose family owns Sumangali Cable Vision, could stand to gain from the jump-started subscribers.
But the nascent colour TV-owning section of Tamil Nadu’s population is not complaining. They seem to agree with Mr Karunanidhi’s Arjun Singh-esque logic of giving away free TV sets to correct the imbalance between people who have been historically denied ‘education and information’ via television and those who have enjoyed it for years. One waits to see if in the next assembly polls Ms Jayalalithaa can go one up on Chennai’s latest Santa and provide free cable connections for all.