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State Elections: Mid-summer marathon

Four states – Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal - and the Union Territory of Pondicherry are going to the polls. With high stakes involved, political parties are engaged in expensive campaigns.

National parties, the BJP and the Congress, are weak players in the current assembly elections. Congress had been ruling Assam for three terms in a row, but seems to have suffered serious erosion in its following. In Kerala, the Congress leads the coalition of over a dozen parties and seems to have lost much of its popular appeal. In West Bengal one sees an odd alliance between the Communists and the Congress, which had been bitterly opposed to each other for decades.   And they oppose each other bitterly in Kerala! In Tamil Nadu, the Congress, which has been out of power since 1967 and has been riding piggyback over one or other of the two Dravidian parties, is aligning with the DMK again. The BJP has been a non-entity in the state.  

Three phases (out of six) of the polls are already over in West Bengal and two phases in Assam. Both have recorded very high voter turnout.

Kerala and Tamil Nadu have been displaying strong anti-incumbency traits; from the late 1980s these have been the norm that work to precision. As per this, the odds appear against the Congress-led coalition in Kerala.

In Tamil Nadu, the situation appears slightly different. Here too the anti-incumbency factor appears strong, especially over the state’s not very healthy state of finances, poor record of economic growth and infrastructure development and dissatisfaction over the manner of handling relief work for the unprecedented floods of November-December that devastated several districts of the state. But the failure of parties in opposition to forge a united front that would prevent the splitting of votes appears to buck the anti-incumbency factor.

There are several parties in the fray. The efforts of the DMK supremo and veteran of several election battles, M Karunanidhi, to bring together all anti-AIADMK forces failed due to the chief ministerial ambitions of DMDK and PMK and irreconcilable personality antagonisms.

Such multi-cornered fights helped the AIADMK score a facile 37 out of 39 victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. This time also such multi-cornered contests seems to favour the ruling the party, though it cannot be as predictable as in 2014.

The Dravidian parties have established a culture of providing a variety of freebies liberally drawing on state coffers. These have been estimated to cost around Rs 22,000 crore under the present AIADMK regime. Add to these, the cost of supplying free power to agriculture, the subsidies involved in the Amma canteens and the cost to the exchequer is estimated to exceed Rs 30,000 crore or nearly a fifth of the revenues.

Add to this, another 20 per cent of total expenditure incurred on servicing the huge debt of over Rs 200,000 crore by way of repayment of a part of the principal plus interest. The huge outgo on salaries and pension benefits to the government employees further accentuated by the seventh pay commission’s recommendations account for another big chunk. These three items together consume the entire revenue receipts compelling the state to borrow more for meeting expenditure. There have been serious under- recoveries in the charges made on public services like electricity and transport. The process also involves a serious distortion in power tariff. Free power to agriculture and subsidised power to the domestic consumer result in exorbitant tariff of around Rs 10 per kwh for small business consumers.

A major plank for this election seems to be the scrapping of prohibition.  With the state’s finances not in great shape, foregoing revenue of around Rs 32,000 crore earned by way of taxes on liquor is not an easy option. All the major political parties including the DMK, which first scrapped prohibition in 1972, are promising a return to the dry era. Tamil Nadu has also earned the notoriety for liberal distribution of cash for votes. Successive election commissioners point to this factor corrupting the election process but express helplessness in tackling this.

In our system of the winner getting all, there is little prospect for big change in the no-holds-barred campaigns with liberal offer of freebies.

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