Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What's Wrong With India?

Throughout American history politicians have sought to gain favor with voters by promising material rewards in exchange for votes. In the days of Tammany Hall, there was a pretty clear quid pro quo in place where voting for the right candidate was directly linked to being rewarded with silver or perhaps a job. Later, these promises become more rhetorical in nature as was the case with Herbert Hoover's 1928 campaign slogan, “A chicken in every pot and a car in very garage.” In recent years, it’s usually been Democrats who have been more forthcoming with promises that putting them into office would improve the material well being of the voter and the ones who were then baffled as to why some voters would choose to vote against their apparent economic self interest.

A story in yesterday’s WSJ explored how blatant vote buying is alive and well in the world’s largest democracy:

Despite being one of India's better-performing states and its auto-industry hub, Tamil Nadu has its share of serious issues to debate this year, including how to halt corruption and fix electricity shortages. But the race between the two leading parties has boiled down mostly to a contest of who can offer a longer list of government-financed freebies.

The incumbent party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, led by 86-year-old former screenwriter and current Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, has promised blenders or grinders for poor families, laptops for engineering students and an insurance program for fishermen. The party is also promising washing machines and refrigerators for unspecified recipients.

The main opposition party, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or AIADMK, led by former film star J. Jayalalithaa, upped the ante with its list of handouts: a blender, a grinder and a fan for all women; four free sheep for poor families; four grams of gold for poor brides (for the necklaces brides wear on their wedding day); 60,000 cows for 6,000 villages and free cable-TV connections for all.

Free cable TV for all? Wonder if the AIADMK would be interested in a third party affiliation here...

The 60,000 cows for 6000 villages has a nice numbers ring to it too. Remindful of Clinton’s “100,000 new cops” proposal.

As is often the case with government intervention in such matters, giving things away for free brings a host of unintended consequences.

There's so much on offer for free that retailers are feeling the pinch. At a local electronics outlet called "Beautiful Store," owner Ariya Palani says TV sales ground to a halt the past three years. He fears the same will happen to mixies and grinders. "If the government is giving them away, why would anyone buy from a store?" he said.

There really is no such thing as a free mixie.