Should leaders play Santa during polls?

The promise of freebies makes citizens look like passive receivers, which does not augur well for a vibrant democracy

Updated - May 13, 2016 03:19 am IST

Published - May 13, 2016 01:41 am IST - CHENNAI:

The election season is when the people await a promise of goodies from their leaders. The manifestos of major political parties do meet this expectation, though the practice could turn out to be anti-democratic while claiming to be “for the people”.

In a democracy, the people are at the centre of wheel, the axle if you would like; in a true democracy, people have agency, they are not mere passive receivers of state largesse. Leaders of civil society have articulated the point of view that the tantalising, sometimes fantastic offers in manifestos are being thrust on the people, whether they like them or not.

E. Elango, former panchayat president, Kuthambakkam, is giving the politician the benefit of the doubt as far as intent goes, when he says, “A leader might be enthused to make a change or take development to all the corners, but it is very difficult for him or her to implement it all without the participation of the people and community.” A strong votary of local governance, having felt its power in his stint as panchayat president, Mr. Elango says it is essential to involve people.

V. Suresh, national general secretary, People’s Union of Civil Liberties, says, “Governance is beyond government; it involves inclusion, participation in decision-making, transparency and accountability. The Chennai floods clearly showed that we cannot depend on the government alone or politicians. What is unacceptable is that people are being treated as if they have no agency or autonomy or that they are incapable of deciding for themselves.”


Freebies, he thinks, are used as a means of enslaving people. They cauterise the critical awareness of people, and get them used to being “beneficiaries”. “This is a vicious spiral of enslavement and people are being treated as cattle. Now, slowly the realisation is dawning among folks among the youth, especially. Civil society rose as one during the floods and its mass-fuelled a people’s movement, but it is too nascent for this group to take a political stance yet.”

M.G. Devasahayam, former IAS officer and urban expert, says manifestos seem to have kept the people out. “Last Sunday, we actually conducted a youth convention that drew up a blueprint for the Chennai metropolis,” he says. With a number of people willing to pitch in with effort and time, the time is ripe to make governance participative.

Mr. Elango goes on to stress the organising principle of “subsidiarity”, a tenet that “holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organisation which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organisation”. This principle is a bulwark of limited government and personal freedom. Unless local-level leaders are involved, he says, it will be impossible to have a true idea of what people want.

At the grassroots

Representatives of political parties have their own take on this. D. Ravikumar, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi candidate in Vanur, says the advantage the People’s Welfare Front, which the party is part of, has is that party workers themselves are involved intimately at the grassroots-level work. “Our contact with the people is very close, unlike that of the Dravidian parties. Our workers are aware of the real issues,” he says.

DMK sources say the manifesto committee travelled to every district and met with every sector, association and voter group, and asked for a wish list. Additionally, there were inputs from four lakh petitions received during party treasurer M.K. Stalin’s Namaku Naame tour.

The PMK’s chief ministerial candidate, Anbumani Ramadoss, insists that his party’s manifesto was entirely participative, that he himself had visited all the districts to get the views of the people. He says: “The welfare schemes promised in our party’s manifesto are a combination of ideas inspired from our discussions with various sections of people and our long-standing ideologies such as prohibition, education and health, agriculture…”

In the mosaic of democracy, all it takes to be participative is to make people the centrepiece — everything else follows.

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