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Sunday, Sep 22, 2019

The politics of populism: It’s dole time in Punjab

Loan waivers, smart phones with free data and calling, free bus facility for school students, more free power, free medical care and what not – it’s raining freebies in Punjab ahead of the assembly polls due early next year.

punjab Updated: Nov 22, 2016 11:47 IST
(From left) Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal.
(From left) Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh and AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal. (HT Photo)

Loan waivers, smart phones with free data and calling, free bus facility for school students, more free power, free medical care and what not – it’s raining freebies in Punjab ahead of the assembly polls due early next year.

Be it the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party (SAD-BJP) alliance, Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), they have all set off on a vote-centric populist streak, promising concessions, doles and waivers for one and all. Though the Punjab assembly elections are still to be formally announced, the poll players are indulging in competitive populism, going all out to outdo each other and virtually promising the moon to the electorate.

While the AAP, which is contesting the assembly polls in Punjab for the first time, has unveiled a set of manifestos, making lofty promises, the Congress has tried to match them with its own bunch of fund-guzzling promises even before releasing its manifesto. The Akalis, who opened their bag of freebies in the last budget of present government a few months ago, are also unlikely to let anyone beat them in competitive populism.

This unprecedented tide of generosity defies all economic logic in a state burdened with a debt liability of Rs 1.38-lakh crore due to unproductive borrowings and fiscal profligacy. The cost of freebies and subsidies has already reached unsustainable levels. But none of the parties has given the specifics of how much would the doles and promises made by them cost the state exchequer and how they plan to pick the tab. These are questions they neither want to pose not confront. The electors aren’t complaining, though.

AAP first off the blocks in freebies

The AAP, which had outsmarted its rivals in Delhi with populist promises that caught the fancy of poor and deprived sections, has taken the lead by unveiling a set of manifestos for the farmers, traders and the youth. It has tried to woo the youth – the main supporters of the rookie party — with the promise to create 25-lakh jobs and employment opportunities, extend the existing free bus travel facility for college students to school students also and start exclusive bus services for girls and women students.

As the road to power in Punjab passes through Malwa’s peasantry, a loan “waive off plan” has been announced for small and marginal farmers with outstanding bank loans and waiver of interest for other farmers. The manifesto announcement was followed by a ‘promissory note’ signed by AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal for loan waiver.

They have also promised minimum support price of “cost plus 50%” and 12-hour power supply.

Then, there is ‘shagan’ of Rs 51,000 within one week of wedding of daughter of a farmer/farm labour and ‘shagan’ deposit of Rs 21,000 in a bank account in the name of a newly born daughter to a farmer or farm labour. The party also promises to pay Rs5 lakh and give a government job for every eligible adult member of the families affected by farmer suicides in the past 10 years and increase the old age pension from Rs 500 to Rs 2,000. There are doles for urban and semi-urban vote banks, besides women entrepreneurs.

Congress gives prudence the go by

The Congress is trying to outwit both the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in populism. Going by the announcements of Punjab Congress chief Captain Amarinder Singh such as 50 lakh 4G-enabled smart phones to state’s youth with one-year of free data and calling after coming to power, the party seems to have given fiscal prudence a go by after the Akalis romped home in two back-to-back elections riding on poll doles.

To reach out to farmers, the party has announced to waive farm loans under the scheme, Karza Kurki Khatam, Fasal ki Poori Rakm’. It had fanned out to 9000 plus villages of the state to enrol farmers who are seeking a debt waiver and even those who were supporting the move. A total of 30 lakh (maangpatra) have been filled by the party. Amarinder pegs the bill of rural debt at Rs 35,000 crore but says the Congress will not need to source funds to waive it off. “The Modi government has saved Rs 3 lakh crore through oil subsidy and can use a part of the savings for the same,” he adds.

Also, the PPCC chief has announced 300 units of free power to poor, up from 200 units provided to the SC and BPL families already, besides tea and sugar for beneficiaries under the atta-dal scheme. Other promises include increase in financial assistance under the Shagun Scheme to Rs 50,000 and old age, handicapped, widow pensions to Rs 2,000 a month.

All these promises have been made even as the party manifesto is still in the works. The committee headed by Rajinder Kaur Bhattal has Manpreet Badal as its convener. As finance minister under the Parkash Singh Badal government, Manpreet had turned a rebel and taken a stand against populism, especially free power to farmers. But as part of Congress poll promises’ panel, he has already promised free power will continue. More poll sops may be in the offing.

SAD govt opens purse, much more to come

A past master in giving out freebies, the SAD-BJP alliance, which is in power since 2007, has also made its intentions clear. The first signs of how the Akalis plan to try and sway the game were given when they came out with a please-all budget replete with populist announcements in March this year.

The Badal government announced 20 vote-clinching sops in the Budget 2016-17 with financial benefits to the tune of Rs 3,000 crore for the youth, farmers, weaker sections, students and the pilgrimage-minded oldies. The farmers, the traditional vote bank of the SAD, have been a huge beneficiary of free power that costs the state a whopping Rs 6,000 crore a year. The subsidy is set to soar further with the government releasing 1.65 lakh new tube well connections – a large number of them in Bathinda, the ruling clan’s political turf.

But there was more for them in the budgetary proposals – Rs 5-lakh insurance cover with annual free medical facility of up to Rs 50,000, interest-free crop loan of Rs 50,000 per crop to small and marginal farmers, a provident fund-cum-pension scheme and some tax concessions for progressive farmers.

The largesse included cycles to girl students, modern gymnasiums in towns and villages, free sports kits to youth, highly subsidised atta-dal to 30-lakh families, utensils to mahila mandals and state-sponsored pilgrimage to not only the Sikh shrines, but also to prominent Hindu and Muslim spiritual sites within and outside the state.

And that’s the size and scale of freebies and populist schemes initiated by the Akalis in the run up to the assembly polls even before they have come out with their manifesto. The SAD hasn’t fulfilled several of its promises made in the 2012 assembly elections. But that’s hardly going to stop the party from showing any restraint.

With demonetisation hitting the poll kitties of all the political players hard, they will be more dependent on freebies and sops than ever before. Don’t be surprised if these doles are just a beginning.

First Published: Nov 22, 2016 09:39 IST