Something is rotten in the state of Tamil Nadu, and the people of its Pillayarpuram village seem to have put a finger on it. Instead of keeling over in gratitude for the benefaction of the chief minister, who bestowed on them a free package of money, savouries and cereals on the occasion of Pongal, the residents of the village have stood up, their backs straight. They have returned the gift with the free advice that the money be distributed among the distressed farmers of the Cauvery region. The message that this gesture sends out in a state where people’s loyalties are seen as a tradable commodity is nothing short of revolutionary. Every election in Tamil Nadu sees political parties jostle with each other trying to woo voters with their own unique package of freebies. The initial conservative offers of free seeds, rice and electricity have morphed into more adventurous bids that include offers ranging from free colour televisions, mixers, grinders and fans to laptops, washing machines and gold chains. These are complemented by the free flow of money, liquor and biryani throughout electioneering and the days of election that make monitoring of any Tamil Nadu poll a nightmare for the Election Commission.
The freebie politics of Tamil Nadu — initiated by the Dravidian parties and now supported by all political dispensations with socialist pretensions — makes a mockery of popular will by assuming that people lack the intelligence to take a conscious political decision that transcends their greed for gifts. In turning voters into clients and politicians into their maai-baap or supreme benefactors, the politics not only tries to pass off a feudal practice as democracy, but also denies the citizen any control over the way public money is used. While Tamil Nadu’s voters have been showered with free meals and electronic goods, government finances have gone into the red. The gaping holes that freebies have dug into the coffers have been sought to be made up by liquor sales or the hikes in bus fares, milk prices and electricity rates that have hit the man on the street. The gesture of the residents of Pillayarpuram shows that the people of Tamil Nadu are waking up to the hazards of freebie politics and claiming back their self-respect. That might be bad news for political parties, but for the people of the state that is truly an invaluable gift.