Poll Promises

Mixer-Grinder in Tamil Nadu, Switzerland-London in West Bengal!

Election time is manifesto time. On the eve of elections we are used to the spectacle of ruling parties releasing eye-catching manifestos with spectacular promises. Former Haryana Chief Minister Chaudhary Devi Lal had once famously said that all manifestos read alike, the difference lying only in cover pages showing the names and election symbols of respective parties. There is surely an element of truth in what the earthy leader had said – almost every ruling party manifesto today for example echoes the same rhetoric of ‘good governance’ and ‘inclusive growth‘ even as in real life governments vie among themselves in promoting corporate plunder, curtailing democratic rights and enacting multi-billion scams. Yet reading between the lines, manifestos still help us in getting an idea about the forms of politics practised by different parties and holding them accountable after they come to power.
Dominant politics in the southern states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh has never had any dearth of cinematic gloss. Once again, the manifestos of both DMK and AIADMK gave us a glittering picture of competitive populism. The DMK manifesto promised free mixers or grinders for women, free laptops for SC/ST engineering students and 35 kg free rice for Antyodaya card-holders, and Rs. 400,000 loan for women self-help groups with a maximum subsidy component of Rs. 200,000. The previous DMK manifesto which had promised colour TV sets and 2 acres of land for every landless poor household had been termed the hero of the 2006 poll. It is another thing that while many families did get colour TV sets, hardly any landless poor family in the state got the promised 2 acres and the government subsequently resorted to an utter lie to claim that the state did not have enough land to fulfil this promise!
Karunanidhi described his current manifesto as the ‘heroine’, only to find a ‘super heroine’ overshadow her in no time. The AIADMK manifesto promised 20 kg free rice to all ration card holders and 20 litres of purified drinking water for BPL families, mixer, grinder and fan for every woman, 4 grams of gold and Rs. 25,000 as marriage assistance, up to Rs. 10 lakh loan for women SHGs, free laptop for all students in colleges and polytechnics, and 3 cents of land as house-site for landless poor families or BPL households. This politics of doles has truly reduced citizens to subjects with modern-day kings and queens promising freebies to come to power and then using state power as a licence to systematically rob the people of all their rights and resources. The freebies are meant not just to fetch votes but also to mint money for the expanding business empire of ruling politicians. It is not difficult to see the huge benefits the mass distributed colour televisions have meant for the cable and channel business run by the ruling family of the DMK.
While the competitive populism of the dominant Dravidian parties makes big news in Tamil Nadu, the focus of national attention in the coming Assembly polls is of course on West Bengal where the Trinamool Congress is widely predicted to dislodge the more than three-decade-old CPI(M)-led government. The TMC has had a dramatic rise in recent years, and with its plank of ‘change’ and accent on mass agitation it has come to acquire a political identity quite distinct from the standard complexion of all-India/regional ruling parties in the present phase of neo-liberal policies. Reinforcing the mystic aura about the TMC has been its enthusiastic endorsement by large sections of progressive and Left-leaning intelligentsia and parties like the SUCI. But as the TMC comes closer to its cherished goal of coming to power in the state, it has started revealing its true colours though its manifesto and its choice of candidates.
The TMC manifesto is full of lofty phrases with very little concrete promises. It promises to transform North Bengal into Switzerland, Kolkata into London and Digha into Goa and usher in green revolution in both agriculture and industry – just by waving the magic wand of ‘public-private partnership’. There are also talks of ‘curbing state terror’ and probing all cases of human rights violations in last 35 years (interestingly, the manifesto also includes the infamous Kashipur-Baranagar massacres of 12-13 August 1971 in this list) within six months. But the manifesto does not forget to blame militant trade union struggles for the industrial crisis in West Bengal even as it is common knowledge that capitalists have had a free hand in CPI(M)-ruled Bengal violating every labour and industrial law with impunity. The manifesto has an entire chapter devoted to the railways but is conspicuously silent about the other ‘achievements’ of the UPA government – the unprecedented rise in prices and the lengthening list of mega scams not to mention the Wikileaks revelations – which the entire country is discussing.

Particularly revealing is the TMC’s list of candidates. The TMC candidate against the Left Front’s Finance Minister is none other than Amit Mitra, the secretary general of FICCI, one of the premier organizations of Indian big business. Mr. Mitra has all along been a loud votary of liberalization, privatization and globalization and a vocal opponent of Singur-type agitations. The TMC nominee against Buddhadev Bhattacharjee is Manish Gupta, former Home Secretary and Chief Secretary of the West Bengal government and currently one of the directors of a Tata company (Tata Metaliks Ltd). And then there are the Rachpal Singhs and Sultan Singhs, former police officers who have been notorious for suppressing popular agitations under Left Front rule. A party which loves to describe itself as the party of ‘Ma-Mati-Manush’ (the soil and people of Motherland Bengal) is systematically packing itself with corporate representatives and former bureaucrats and police bosses.