by V Kumaraswamy

So what is wrong in demanding or taking subsidies or freebies and voting for the political party which promises and delivers the maximum freebies? If their hopes stand so substantially diluted, who is at fault?

There is a shrill opposition nowadays by the intelligentsia against the Kejriwal’s brand of politics of freebies—free electricity, water, DBT, etc., as exemplified in election promises in Goa, Punjab and others. But Kejriwal is “supplying” only a product that is much in demand. So let’s look at the justification by his clientele.

From my various travels across the country over the years and many conversations with various strata, I have come to the conclusions that (i) reforms as an end product appeals maybe to only 2-3% of the elites and intelligentsia, (despite evidence it has benefitted a lot more) who have most facilities of the developed world right here in India except that Delhi and Mumbai still do not look as glamorous or glitzy as Sydney, NY or London for them. They have the lung power through the media. (ii) Infrastructure, the focus of governments now, as an end product perhaps appeals to the middle class (maybe 10-15%) who has the ability and financial savings to wait for infrastructure to improve competitiveness … which will improve growth … which will deliver jobs … to the skilled or educated, and (iii) rest or at least 70% are interested only in freebies and crumbs thrown at them. They have the vote power.

If everyone can vote one’s self-interest, why should the poor not vote for their self-interest? Under the last 50 years of the British our growth rates were on average 0.5% to 1% and their (poor) personal fortunes—education, skills and per capita income—were all on a relentless decline. And after Independence it has not been that significant either. Population increased faster than the previous 100-150 years to absorb the higher growth of 3-4%. An increasing number of poor lack the conviction that reforms or infra growth (of the variety we have been pursuing—8-lane highways, bullet rains, airports which have 2-3 landings a day) will deliver them the jobs or be a permanent source of income. So what is wrong in demanding or taking subsidies or freebies and vote for the political party which promises and delivers the maximum freebies? If their hopes stand so substantially diluted, who is at fault?

Forget about income or jobs, medical care, social respect, water or primary education, it is not just bad design and inadequate delivery but lack of intent and callous attitude of the ruling class. Take the case of justice, our worst failure. No poor can afford it with an average lifetime savings or asset base of Rs 72,000 (for the bottom 50%) or Rs 7 lakh+ on an average, which is heavily concentrated at the top. So he seeks the help of neighbours, local dons or politicians to settle in hours and days within a week what our courts will take 17 years to settle at first level. If a few “para illegal” murders take place as a consequence, it is the fault and failure of formal systems, not theirs in my opinion.

Are not the Kejriwal clientele gaining at all? They may be earning 5-6 times the money earnings that they used to 30 years ago. But primary education from government schools has gone for a toss and they have to spend a fortune on dubious private education. Healthcare availability has widened no doubt, but costs have increased many more times than their incomes. Uncertainties have only increased. All these reflect in their poor wealth. I don’t know how many of them are accumulating wealth and how many are running it down. Surely, at Rs 72,000, they can’t be accused of being greedy.

I am not saying poverty levels have not come down. But if they see their prosperity rising at a snail’s pace when that of the privileged gallops, they are justified in feeling left out or perhaps even jealous.

Until we restore faith of the bottom 70% in formal systems and demonstrate its ability to deliver better and faster results than informal systems, my sympathies are with them. 75 years (even if you want to ignore the colonial times) is too long a trial period.

Kejriwal and his ilk can’t be blamed for their shrewdness. But the nation will learn the lessons of unbridled socialism all over again and lose precious decades in the process.

V. Kumaraswamy is author of Making Growth Happen in India