Goats, gold among freebies as parties compete for parliamentary seats in India

A man poses as he gets his face painted ahead of the sixth phase of India's general election in Mumbai April 23, 2014. Goats, cable television, blenders, fans, bicycles and gold are among freebies promised by regional parties as they campaign for nat
A man poses as he gets his face painted ahead of the sixth phase of India's general election in Mumbai April 23, 2014. Goats, cable television, blenders, fans, bicycles and gold are among freebies promised by regional parties as they campaign for national elections.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CHENNAI, India - Goats, cable television, blenders, fans and gold are among freebies promised by Tamil Nadu's ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Aiadmk) as it campaigns in national elections, projecting its leader, former film actress J. Jayalalithaa, as a future prime minister.

Other regional parties are also getting into the act. The Biju Janata Dal party, which holds power in the eastern state of Odisha, is offering free bicycles to some students. In Andhra Pradesh on India's southeast coast, the Telugu Desam Party is promising to waive all farmer loans, while local workers of the Congress party is offering free electricity and cooking gas for the poor.

Regional parties promising government giveaways threaten to undermine pledges by Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, which leads in opinion polls, to impose fiscal discipline if he forms a coalition government, Bloomberg reported.

A fragmented coalition that leads to increased spending on subsidies and weaker growth would put the nation of 1.2 billion people at risk of a credit-rating downgrade, Standard and Poor's said last week.

"It's all about instant gratification, and the voters are as culpable as the politicians in all of this," said M.R. Venkatesh, a Chennai-based independent analyst who has written a book about Indian politics. "If you have to give everyone clean drinking water and schooling, it's not going to happen in an instant, whereas if I give you a fan then it's easier."

India's subsidy bill rose fivefold in the past decade under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's ruling Congress party to 2.6 trillion rupees (S$55 billion) a year. In the same period, the Indian economy has only doubled in size, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Polls show Mr Modi's BJP winning the most seats while falling short of a majority, which would make him reliant on regional parties such as AIADMK to form a government. The BJP, while saying it will continue the world's largest food program providing cheap grain for the poor, said in its manifesto that it would "strictly implement fiscal discipline."

Tamil Nadu, which is among states that will vote tomorrow, is one of India's better-performing states. Even so, about two-thirds of rural households don't have a toilet, the government says, and about 12 million of the state's 70 million residents - more than the population of Portugal - live on S$5 a day, according to the World Bank.

Every poor Indian household would get four goats, a cow, solar panels and cable television if the party takes power. Poor women will get blenders, fans and - if they get married - 4 grams of gold along with about S$850 in cash, Bloomberg reported.

"These are important welfare programs because people at the lower rungs of society cannot afford these things," said B.V. Ramanaa, an AIADMK leader and the state's minister for revenue.

"Rural families spend longs days working hard in the fields. After work they need some comfort."

The AIADMK is forecast to win as many as 21 of Tamil Nadu's 39 seats, making it the fourth-biggest party in the 543-member parliament, according to an opinion poll published this month by CNN-IBN.

The BJP and its allies would win as many as 246 seats, short of the 272 needed for a majority, it said. S. Subramaniam Balaji, a Chennai-based lawyer, petitioned the election commission and Indian courts to stop the giveaways.

The handouts constitute bribes and are illegal because the Indian constitution says government spending must be for the public, not individuals, he said.

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