As elections approach in five states, the main parties make several promises to the public, as usual. In some cases, ruling parties even implement these promises in the days leading up to elections. It is an integral part of elections in a democracy, and even of sound practice – the public should know what they are being asked to support or reward through their choices on Election Day.

These appeals to voters generally fall into three categories. Some of the promises are directed to all members of the public. For example, a reduction in electricity prices, accessible to all consumers without distinction. A second set of promises concern women, such as free public transport, and these can also be considered universal. But there is a third set of things on offer that are clearly only intended for certain people.

The range of such things is quite striking, but their common characteristic is that the benefit is proposed to be selectively available to some. Market and price support for farmers, ex gratia payments to victims of certain tragedies, the creation of new government colleges in certain districts – these usual nonsense of the past had unspoken but understood premises. Namely that some people and some regions suffer, and therefore state support is selectively needed to raise them.

This is understandable, but it should also be borne in mind that this type of intervention has been going on for decades, with no obvious results. The reasons why some livelihoods are threatened, or some places face underdevelopment and distress, are complex. Weak governance, social divide and market frictions all contribute to their desperation. The state, acting in isolation, is often incapable of solving such problems.

What is more likely is that new pots of money from government budgets simply disappear into the same abyss that contributed to the problems in the first place. Quite often, the funds end up entrenching the political power of “rulers” who have only driven their constituents to ruin.

It would be much better if all state supports were universal in nature, without the artificial inclusion of some people and exclusion of others. In India, the search for better rights and opportunities for people has followed a course of “separate and equal”, whereby those who need help seek it for themselves. This is motivated by the fear that unless the benefits are theirs alone, they will also be appropriated by others, and therefore it is important to maintain a separate channel in which the gains accrue only to them.

Political power is unevenly distributed in society, and there is a high risk that even good projects will be hijacked by vested interests who want to preserve the status quo. Thus, one can understand the preference for exclusive schemes. But there is also an obvious downside to such choices.

The fundamental principles that distinguish democracies are “universality” and “equality”. Therefore, the best state interventions for the development of people should also be anchored in these principles. If a proposed benefit does not bring us closer to universal equality, it is probably not a good choice. This is the test that many political sops fail today. Separation itself is a kind of inequality, and it cannot be the answer to the social and economic challenges we face.

It would be more obvious if we took a step back to understand what is at the root of the underdevelopment that some people and places face. Very often the reasons are that we have not made adequate investments in the social infrastructure that should be universally available – and of good quality – to serve them. Schools and health facilities, roads and transport services for market access, communication, public services – these things need to be properly and fully provided everywhere, rather than just in the privileged few. Perhaps, then, we wouldn’t see the basics of development presented as options in the polls.

Every child deserves a fair education, and the government of the day has an obligation to adequately fund it. Every family has the right to health, and the public health system must be good enough to protect that. And so on with all the other anchors and pillars of development. We have already seen many sets of promises without this mixture of universality and potential equality. And they got nowhere. Instead, each time, they’ve only set the stage for another set of very similar promises next time around.

Unfortunately, rather than correcting promises, parties are upping the stakes by selectively inducing and gaining support from some people and excluding others. Nowadays, they clearly refer to the voter ‘s identity rather than their situation in life or their livelihood. Political leaders have become comfortable telling voters they are standing up for and with some people, and implicitly or explicitly against others.

It’s a vicious circle. If political power in a democracy is used as an instrument to selectively favor certain people, those who are in disgrace either lose confidence in development through democratic politics, or they buy into the idea that they too should try to conquer. anyone who is not like them. . Neither is good for society or the country.

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