Sat, Dec 30, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Indian poor told `Vote for me, get a free TV'


These days, it seems, the huddled masses are yearning to get free TVs.

Declaring color television a basic necessity, an Indian political party promised free sets to the poor and swept to power in May in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. So far, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party has handed out 60,000 sets and plans to give away 30,000 more in the coming months.

As far as political platforms go, this one clearly has been a winner.

"I will always vote for DMK," said Parimala, a 51-year-old widow who like many in these parts uses only one name.

Peeling onions on the bare floor of her tiny, 2m by 1m living room, her eyes hardly wavered from the soap opera playing at full volume on the 36cm box adorned with a purple sticker reading: "Government of Tamil Nadu Color TV 2006."

An electoral stunt for sure, but one that illustrates how populism has emerged as the default position of parties across India's political spectrum as they contend with the fading of once-dominant ideologies.

The Congress Party, which has dominated India for much of post-independence history, is struggling to find a new path since abandoning the socialism espoused by the nation's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Hindu nationalism also is not the force it was just a decade ago.

Many areas have seen the rise of populism, with politicians offering a mishmash of social programs and other promises to the masses.

But no one has gone as far as Tamil Nadu's DMK. Part of the reason is money -- Tamil Nadu is one of India's wealthiest states, giving its government full tax coffers.

"In other states the populism is mainly rhetoric, but in Tamil Nadu they can afford to give out so much," said Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a political scientist in New Delhi.

"The kind of material benefits to the voters in Tamil Nadu are unprecedented," he said.

DMK was voted out in 2001 but staged a comeback in last May's elections, and now voters like Parimala are eager for the goodies they were promised during the campaign.

"In January, they are giving us gas stoves," she said with a grin.

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