Poverty and Polls-the Indian perspective
News analysis

Poverty and Polls-the Indian perspective

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Our political leaders irrespective of parties and “ideologies” demonstrate an infectious obsession with poverty. Come election time and they coin various colourful slogans around poverty. They have been celebrating poverty every five years with incessant zeal. When they think of deprived crowds milling around in the hope of getting some freebies, they get ecstatic. They style themselves as grassroot royals ever obliging to dole out favours in cash and kind out of pure philanthropical compulsions. Where else on earth can you see such selfless leaders oozing with compassion and empathy from the bottom of their hearts?

In mofussil India, vote seeking has been perfected into a family craft of the leader clans - the mantle passes on from generation to generation. With seventy years of election history behind us, many of our young crop of leaders mouth anecdotes about how their great- grand fathers, uncles or mothers used to throw baksheesh at the milling crowds like what these “inheritors” now indulge in.

Our Netas’ obsession to the glorification of poverty knows no bounds. Their glee in celebrating poverty finds expression in full-blown display of pan-stained teeth, while inaugurating a fully air conditioned train straddling across their clannish backyards. They have the audacity to ceremoniously name such a train as “Garib Rath”!! A royal vehicle eulogizing perpetuation of stark poverty!

Don’t we remember the gymnastic thrill with which our Netas, and economists under their patronage, play with the sacred line wrapped around India’s body politic- called Garibi Rekha. When a Neta is in power, he pulls the line up and when he is in opposition, he pushes it down. There are obliging professionals who can do the bidding and give the whole exercise legitimacy.

The Netas never run out of goodies or ideas in their Akshaya Patras of freebies. To be fair to the Regional satraps, controlling the proprietorships and family businesses in the name of local parties of various caste-clan hues, we need to give them full credit for pioneering the freebies politics in India. Their wild and creative merchandise of freebies have already exhausted a vast range of products from the humble sari to the modern laptops. Not to be left behind in the marketing pitch for the voters at large, even the larger National Parties have upped their freebee portfolios with alacrity.

There is this oft-quoted story of Mr. Jomo Kenyatta (1897 – 1978) who governed Kenya first as Prime Minister upon independence from colonial rule   and then as President from 1964 to his death in 1978. The story goes that when World Bank experts met him and offered help to build robust roads that could withstand wear and tire and nature’s fury in African terrain, the leader questioned, “How long would the roads last?”. “A concrete road made to global standards would last for decades without any major repair”, replied the experts. On hearing this, Kenyatta was furious and commented with a genuine concern, “If there is no need for repairs, how will I keep my people employed? Gentlemen, give me roads that need repair every year, so I can tell my people that I am giving them both roads and jobs.”

When we hear about our politicians announcing loan waivers for farmers before every election, we are reminded of the words uttered by Kenyatta way back in the 1960’s. Is time standing still in India? Our Netas are visibly happy to deal with symptoms but are loath to treat the disease. If our Economists tell them that not loan waivers but strengthening the physical, financial and commercial infrastructure for farming is what can deliver sustainable progress for farmers, you might hear dismissive yawns. You might also hear patronizing advices like,” You are theoretical; be realistic- understand our voters and what appetite they have developed over the years. Don’t tell me to throw the baby with the bathtub”.

Afterall, electoral politics is an art. Much like marketing, its success lies in understanding what the target customer or “beneficiaries” want. When you look at mass markets, customer behavior is conditioned by the values, attitudes, habits and perception which are all in turn influenced and nurtured by the experiences they have had in the larger community. In a society where on the one side you have experienced deprivations, rejections and obstacles and on the other side you have been fed on fantasies and make-belief world of “super-humans” of the tinsel-town or cricketing world, the typical, Indian, rural, middle-class voter is already mentally prepared for being fodder to the pompous, patronizing and glorified Netas. The typical voter is realistic to limit his yearnings to getting a few freebies rather than looking for enablement to succeed.

Politicians on both sides of the divide vie with each other to exceed in freebee announcements. They also indulge in a variety of games that they deftly play such as flying the highest dream balloons that can mesmerize the voters, appropriating the credit for each other’s freebee announcements etc.

Upon realizing that the time-tested slogan of Garibi Hatao has lost its bite due to the fatigue of the target audience, the New Gen Netas have just coined a version 2.0 of the same old slogan– “Garibi Mitao”. Looks like during their private prayers, these charlatan breed of Netas may be urging God never to end poverty in this blessed land of ours. If some God or demigod by a stroke of a wand abolished poverty from this land, most of our Netas would suffocate to death like fish thrown out of water.

Ingenuity and disruptive thinking would soon lead to innovative ways to celebrate Poverty across the land. I am talking about going beyond the gimmicks of establishing public canteens (named fondly to remind those who drop in to have a bite at the cost of a dime about the benevolent neo-royal who established the path-breaking concept). There could be more ways to celebrate poverty. What about a National Garibi Divas, to be declared as a public holiday under Negotiable Instruments Act? What about new slogans like, “Preserving Poverty is our Birth Right, and we shall have it at any cost”?

It looks like, as information, professional skills and enabling technologies get more and more pervasive and accessible without barriers of entry, our Netas’ instincts for self-preservation would run out of breath. They would find it increasingly difficult to keep sizeable population underserved, under-nourished and under-empowered citizens as guaranteed vote bank to be tapped at will by election time freebies. That is the inevitable tomorrow waiting to dawn.

Yet, India is a Nation of grassroot and raw creativity – called fondly by the name of juggad. Our politicians are master craftsmen of juggad. They will try all their jugglery to prolong the dismantling of poverty preserving culture through zero-sum policies, posturing and patronizing. All options may dry out for these Netas in the disruptive fury of the inevitable change that will sweep communities and nations on the back of technology and pervasive skilling revolution. They may, hopefully in the not-so-distant future queue up for freebees from tomorrow’s empowered larger community.

*The author is Principal Consultant & CEO of Cherrypick India, Trivandrum and can be contacted at