Millennium Post

Who shops for votes

Many may not like the usage of the term shopping for votes. Few will like to accept that the politicians treat citizens as consumers. Fewer will appreciate the phrase to describe election as an advance auction of stolen goods. But take a look at how elections are being conducted in various parts of the country today and the reason for such cynicism will be clear.

Politics today is increasingly turning towards the masters in influence peddling. Team Rahul comprises of youngsters having professional training on different aspects of branding and communication. Team Modi has been using services of professionals for quite a few years now. Team Kejriwal actually comprises of ambitious professionals with a large number of gullible supporters. Gone are the days of political volunteers who used to vote, as did their parents and grandparents. Young enthusiasts have no qualms of switching loyalties based on their perceived personal gains. And why blame the cadres? Even leaders join politics weighing options of their personal benefits. If the ‘leaders’ behave as peddlers of products, can they afford not to treat voters as consumers? What is more the changing behaviour of politics is not merely confined in electioneering. This has become a continuous effort. Governance is aimed at pleasing the majority, winning them over and keeping them with the ruling party. Thus unpopular but necessary measures lose priority and in effect governance suffers. Those who disagree with this conclusion need to take a look at the budgetary decisions of the UPA-II government in the last five years.

The government was formed when bottom fell out of the US economy. To plug the loopholes Washington eased monetary policy. The easy money that was available shifted to economies where returns were higher; India emerged as a popular choice for US funds. New Delhi, in order to artificially maintain the Indian growth rate, helped such easy money to seep in. Thus instead of building a stronger foundation the government allowed uneconomic usage of the easy money flowing in. Indian economy as a result turned overleveraged. The end result of the myopic policy is stalled projects, banks with huge bad debt and a very low level of economic growth.

The other aspect of treating the citizens as consumers was offering products (schemes), which they perceived that the majority would like. There had been two streams of this policy. First ray of populism was offering subsidies and benefits to the economically backward sections. This was a double-edged sword. States where UPA had been in power received benefits while the same for non-UPA states were disbursed with extra care. The aim was to show how voting UPA would benefit the people. The second clear signal to the majority was that the government was concerned of the plight of the poor hence assuming the role of redistributor. But the robbing Peter to pay Paul principle can work as long as one can rob Peter without harming his economic prospects. The unchecked fiscal deficit that resulted illustrates how this aspect was winked at.

Treating the citizens as mere consumers did not help. There were two reasons for the failure. First and critical is the leakages that saw benefits accruing to unintended beneficiaries. The same did not go unnoticed. Thus instead of creating goodwill the subsidy schemes made many hostile to the system. The second factor that hurt the government’s image was the people’s expectation of uninterrupted flow of income, gainful employment, not merely doles. In the initial stages the various sops led to a lower rate of migration from rural to urban centres than before. This caused labour shortages in the construction sector. By the time the rural poor realised the foolhardiness of staying put in villages for the sake of doles and looked for opportunities of gainful employment the economy had slowed down. In effect the anger of the people on the half-baked government policies are now at a peak when election is approaching. Citizens as consumers have moved away from the product UPA had been peddling.

In the context of the wrong products marketed by Congress-led UPA one may view the emergence of Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party. AAP had been campaigning of the plight of the target consumers – the lower level corruptions and sloppiness of the governance process, which had been affecting the daily lives of the Delhiites. Since the migrants who form the majority of Delhi’s electorates, have a clear idea of the corruptions in the subsidy schemes running in their villages they readily accepted the AAP packaging on corruption. Believing that the state government can cure the corruption of a lower level babu, they all opted for AAP.

The packaging and the product of BJP had been similar. But the party had a few negative factors. First the party is already in charge of the municipal councils in Delhi. Corruption in Delhi’s municipal councils is a regular and sort of well-accepted phenomenon. BJP’s anti-corruption packaging was thus less attractive than the mint-fresh one from Kejriwal’s AAP. Second BJP’s candidates are no new faces but have been there for a while. To the migrant and young electorate these faces did not evoke much confidence. Thus despite being the most prominent opposition party BJP’s wares did not find much enthusiasm among the voters in Delhi.

The fact however remains that politics today, be it the grand old Congress, relatively younger BJP and the mint-fresh AAP, treat citizens as consumers. They all sell a dream to the voters so that they can assume the mantle of power. While selling their products and shopping for votes they all hide the fact that election is finally an advance auction of stolen goods. The degree of effectiveness of this camouflage leads to the degree of electoral success. Sadly the experience everywhere, in Delhi or rest of the nation, leads one to this conclusion.

The author is a communication consultant
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