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Posted at: May 15, 2019, 6:24 AM; last updated: May 15, 2019, 6:24 AM (IST)

Luring voters with election marketing

Vikash Narain Rai

Vikash Narain Rai
The political parties, in their quest for serving a heady cocktail, dish out one Ponzi scheme after another; these are bound to get stuck sooner or later. Remarkably, pyramid marketing is illegal in business but legal in the elections.
Luring voters with election marketing
Gullible: Voters fall for seemingly short-term but volatile election promises.

Vikash Narain Rai
Former Director, National Police Academy, Hyderabad

NOT to be missed in the ongoing noisy election debate, there prevails a silent din among voters to hold the ruling political parties accountable for their election promises. Even though the voter’s bargaining status at times is akin to the pyramid marketing which was bound to tumble sooner or later and yet that was never a secret to its clients. A pyramid business model recruits members via a promise of payments or services for enrolling others into the scheme. As recruiting multiplies, it becomes increasingly impossible, and most members are unable to profit; as such, pyramid schemes are unsustainable and often illegal. 

Election promises are also proving unsustainable, but they are not illegal; they are not even misconduct in the eyes of the Election Commission. The pyramid schemes are based on network marketing, where each part of the pyramid takes a piece of the pie/benefits, forwarding the money to the top of the pyramid. They fail simply because there are not sufficient people. Political parties extend the same bait to the people through their assorted cadres and also fail for the same reason when voters desert them.

In the present context of electioneering, the failure of the ruling BJP’s 2014 promises would become obvious in the party bypassing the mention of any worthwhile models around fighting corruption, black money and unemployment, or on the resolution of issues like ease of business, productive farming, Ram Mandir and Kashmir. They are now desperately clinging to the remaining two of their core schemes to build on their election strategy: Hindutva and national security. They know that these two will take pretty much longer to crumble even in the present discredited format and carry the potential to be re-packaged again and again. Much like ‘Garibi Hatao’ of the rival Congress party that had resurfaced as Antyodaya and the old MNREGA now as NYAY.

Why do voters fall for such seemingly short-term but volatile election promises? For the similar reasons for which people fall for the hollowed business schemes! In a pyramid marketing set-up, the gullible customer falls for the immediate gains and risks to be willingly taken for a ride. The lure of the pyramid model takes care of his prudence factor. Similarly, election politics is relentless and leaves voters no escape from the politician’s jugglery.

The political parties, in their quest for serving a heady cocktail, dish out one Ponzi scheme after another, which are bound to get stuck sooner or later. Remarkably, pyramid marketing is illegal in business but legal in the elections.

During my professional career, I came across one sure gang of Ponzi scamsters, who had modelled their trade along the tricks of pyramid marketing. They set up a shop full of home appliances in a Haryana city and offered products at half the market price to those who paid fully in advance and were willing to wait for 10-30 days for delivery. Each beneficiary was also encouraged to introduce extra customers to the trade. As the registrations boomed and the police intervened to stop this recklessness, the ‘traders’, armed with a genuine sales tax number, obtained a stay from the local court against interference. They met the delivery dates for a month or so and then quietly disappeared with the huge booty. This, when the customers were suspicious too and a few of them were doing turns to keep a vigil over the shop, and the local police station had also deputed two constables as watchdogs. The culprits were much later traced to a particular place in Tamil Nadu and it was gathered that similar gangs originating from that area had been active for a long time in several other states as well.

This episode is mentioned only for drawing a parallel between pyramid marketing and election marketing as non-fulfilment of election promises cannot always be quantified in the above fashion. One might count the newly created jobs and latrines or figure out the amounts involving debt waivers and Mudra loans, but certainly cannot measure the progress on scales in regard to issues like freedom from corruption and security for women or reservation and sabka vikas. 

However, under the circumstances, the temptation among political parties to outdo each other with fresh Ponzi schemes during election times and stick to the pyramid delivery set-up would not ebb. The netas and their cronies at the top levels of the political pyramid will typically profit and the voters at the lowest levels will typically lose.

The political success of the BJP’s pyramid model in 2014 was bound to seep into its subsequent governance as well. It is no secret that most of the Modi administration’s flagship schemes, including notebandi and GST, have suffered because of implementation problems. Actually, the party entailed a problem of vision as well, hitting too many dead-ends, in trying out one pyramid model after the other by re-assembling and rechristening several schemes initiated by previous regimes. 

The most glaring would be the case of Namami Gange project which was much the same as the ‘Clean Ganga’ project of the Rajiv Gandhi era. It should have been clear to all that the cleaning of a river of the magnitude of Ganga would be a futile and extremely expensive business vision; instead, the spiritual vision of ‘don’t pollute Ganga’ would have yielded the desired results much earlier, through people’s participation. The Ganga is super clean at the origin and flows clean during its initial journey; only let it continue through the entire course as such.

The Modi government’s real visionary scheme, the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, too, is an expanded and ambitious version of the Nirmal Bharat scheme of the Manmohan Singh administration. Nevertheless, the widely televised sight of the Prime Minister symbolically washing the feet of ill-paid sweepers at this year’s epic Kumbh congregation was testimony to the BJP’s desperation in not being able to reap the desired political harvest out of the scheme.

The paradoxical push towards cleaner cities, primarily a thrust on the mental and manual efficiency of the sweepers, is found invariably clogged at the disposal end. Having to live in the dirtiest possible environment, the concept of cleanliness has remained unchanged for an average sweeper. They couldn’t care less; with hardly any worthwhile technological upgrade in their skill set, the new drive just meant putting in extra labour for carrying out the old routine. In order to sustain the vision to position sweepers as agents of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, shouldn’t they have been relocated in the cleaner localities in the town, to start with?

The Ponzi spirit driving the pyramid marketing of elections is visible this time, too, best reflected in the unprecedented use of foul language, even by the top leadership. Political India is living from election to election and there seems to be no respite for the voters.


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