When it comes to handing out doles to keep vote-banks captive, Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has long made a virtue out of a vice. Recently, he grandly proclaimed before media-persons that nobody can stop him practising the ‘politics of yarn and blanket’. It is another matter that in nearly 15 years of Tarun Gogoi’s unbroken rule, voters in ‘developed’ Assam still have to hanker for yarn, blankets and mosquito nets. Early this year, as part of his budget proposals, the Chief Minister had announced schemes to hand out cash and benefits amounting to Rs 862 crore. Committees were constituted to select beneficiaries, while the State government went about procuring the materials. The distribution would have been completed by February — which by coincidence or by design, would be just before the Election Commission enforces its model code of conduct. But now comes a dampener which the powers-be in Dispur possibly failed to foresee. Gogoi’s dole schemes have come under the scrutiny of the Gauhati High Court admitting a petition by the NGO Assam Public Works. A fundamental question has come up for consideration before the court — how will the government go about selecting beneficiaries; what will be the criteria applied? After all, no guidelines have been issued, neither have any advertisements been taken out inviting applications from likely beneficiaries.
As it has been with many such schemes in the past, the entire process lacks transparency. Many likely beneficiaries do not have the foggiest idea whether they qualify to receive yarn, blanket, mosquito nets, tractors, power tillers, cash handouts or pensions; and if so, then how to get such doles from the government. The committees tasked with selecting beneficiaries in every constituency and every district — are made up of ministers, MPs and MLAs, panchayat members, government officials and social workers. Even if it is supposed that fair criteria is applied strictly to select beneficiaries, what will the committees do if the number of deserving people for such doles is more than the scheme can support? Stipulate a ‘first come first served’ rule or arrange a draw of lots? The suspicion is that beneficiaries will be selected on political considerations, that the ruling party will use public money to distribute doles in every constituency to keep its core votebank happy. In the past, the Tarun Gogoi government played this game to the hilt in building houses for the poor under the Indira Awaas Yoja or distributing MGNREGA job cards to the rural poor. Tarun Gogoi may harp on his right to play the politics of patroge, but targeted welfare schemes are a dicey proposition for governments in countries around the world. Those who deserve to benefit from such schemes but are left out, turally feel cheated and blame the government for wasting public money.
Mindful of the negative fallout over such targeting, many progressive governments prefer universal schemes under which all likely beneficiaries can be included. In terms of fairness and equity, administrative efficiency and cost-effectiveness, universal schemes always score above targeted schemes. The earlier Congress-led UPA government at the Centre itself put up one such universal scheme for food security, seeking to provide subsidized foodgrain to as much as two-thirds of the Indian population. But this is not something the Congress government in Assam, so woefully lacking in vision, is likely to emulate. So Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi swears by his conventiol ‘yarn and blanket’ politics, through which the ruling party is determined to carve out rrow voting allegiances in every assembly constituency. When his government goes about identifying elderly, homeless and flood/erosion affected people, widows and unmarried women, small artisans and farmers — the thrust is on political loyalty to the mai-baap sarkar. Thanks to a fractured polity, vote splitting and a ‘first-past-the-post’ electoral system, the ruling party only needs to target a definite number of such beneficiaries in each constituency who will ‘return the favour’ during the polls. It remains to be seen whether our courts can make political parties broaden their vision and adopt more inclusive politics.