With the assembly elections in five states, the tool of freebies has again come to the aid of politicians to woo the voters. Does the freebie model of governance hold any repercussions for the future?
Over the years, election campaigns in India have evolved to get maximum votes by using various strategies. In 1967 when Annadurai promised to give the poor rice at overwhelming low price, nobody had the slightest idea that this welfare measure would take a monstruos shape and political parties would dole out washing machines, television sets, mangalsutras et cetera in Tamil Nadu. This freebie model of governance has virulently spread across the political spectrum in India and is aided by the problems of poverty, illiteracy and ignorance among the Indian masses. Every time when elections are announced the parties instead of asking for votes on the account of work done by them, try to entice the voters with a new set of materialistic and illusory promises. Now, since the Supreme Court has admitted the PIL filed by Ashwini Kumar Updhyay against the misuse of poll promises it becomes pertinent to understand the threats posed by freebie politics.
The phenomenon of competitive freebie politics raises many questions about the sanctity of the electoral process. Giving away such ‘gifts’ is almost equivalent to bribing the voters and a fraud on the taxpayers (both direct and indirect taxation included) who pay taxes diligently thinking that these would be appropriately used for nation building. Presently, the Union Government has given all the 29 states a total sum of Rs. 665562.74 (in crores) for meeting their Expenses, this sum has been collected through taxation. Moreover it takes a toll on the economy. A look at the fiscal health of Tamil Nadu is a case in point. As per the interim budget estimates Tamil Nadu has a debt of ₹5,70,189 crore. In addition to this the public debt on the state is 26.69% which is higher than the limit of 25% set by the 14th Financial Commission.
Political parties try to justify handing out sops under the garb of redistribution of income and bridging vast economic disparity. However, they fail to address the issue of longevity of such measures. In an article, Francois Bourguignon highlighted that certain measures may yield quick results but do not solve the problem of poverty in the long run. But other measures such as access to quality education and healthcare build the foundation for a decent standard of living. The methods being currently adopted by parties may give instant gratification but are not the solution to the problems faced by the country.
A peculiar feature of this model is that it is mostly relied on by the parties in State elections and not national elections, barring the exception of the 2019 general elections where the BJP and the Congress were competing for the votes of the farmers and the poor. Both promised a cash transfer of Rs. 6,000 and Rs. 72,000 per annum respectively. This trend is clearly evident through a perusal of the manifestos issued by parties during the last 5 years. Perhaps the reason for this is that the parties think that the voters during parliamentary elections vote on issues like national security, corruption et cetera whereas state elections are focused more on caste, class, religion politics and try to get an extra edge by handing out freebies. Such an approach has created small pockets of underdevelopment where it’s easy to entice the gullible electorate on account of such promises.
In the recent time, another issue has emerged that political parties are now targeting a wider section of the population which includes even those who have the means to provide themselves with the articles promised. Adopting such policies neither stands the reasonable classification test under Article 14 of the Constitution nor it can be justified in the name of redistribution of income.
With the recent announcement of elections in five states the AAP, BJP, SP and Congress have taken the standard of sops to the next level. They have promised gifts ranging from scooties to free electricity. Promises like these somewhere create a false sense of an ‘Eden of Affluence’, disregarding the scarcity of resources due to which people think that the state’s resources are abundant and capable of meeting their demands. Thus, people are under the impression that the state bears no cost for the ‘free lunch’ given to them, all the incentive to work for a better life dries up. Instead of enhancing human capital, freebie politics cripples it.
Another problem with poll promises is the lack of research on the part of parties. They lack the understanding of which section of the society needs what help. Many parties claim that they release their manifestos after holding consultations with the people on the grassroots but they do not back their claim with figures and research reports, for instance none of the major political parties have given a description of how they concluded what policies were needed for a particular state. The Aam Aadmi Party during 2015 Delhi elections claimed to have launched the ‘Delhi Dialogue’ initiative for the purpose of knowing people’s desires and demand. But the moot question is that – where is the proof of such research?
The ground reality is strikingly different from the rosy picture painted in political rallies. The writer had a chance to talk to some beneficiaries who got laptops during the Akhilesh government. Some said they didn’t know how to use laptops, others moaned about the lack of electricity and some even sold the laptops in cities. The government instead should have introduced effective computer education at school level and opened computer training centres to impart free cyber learning to adults. The failure of such schemes can be attributed to the lack of research.
The aim of our governments must be to equip it’s citizen with skills that ensure better employment, raising their standard of living through sustainable methods. Indians must take a leaf from the tragic fate of Venezuela. The leaders of the country rolled out populist schemes and lagrese in the 1980s placing all the fiscal burden on its petroleum resources, thinking that these natural resources will be able to finance it without any repercussions. But hyperinflation hit this South American nation hard leading to shortages of food and medicine in the recent time. In 2013, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court to declare free gifts as ‘corrupt practices’ under section 123 of the Representation of Peoples Act [RP ACT]. The Supreme Court refused to term it as ‘corrupt practice’ on the following grounds :
● All the promises made cannot come under the term ‘freebies’. Such classification will be flawed.
● Only the case where the candidate uses corrupt practises to influence the voter is covered by the RP Act.
● The provisions related to corrupt practices are penal in nature and hence it must be strictly interpreted.
● The court said that only the parliament is vested with the power to term certain practices as corrupt not the SC.
However, the court asked the Election Commission [EC] to form guidelines to stop the abuse of taxpayers money. It also at the same time asked the legislature to frame policies in this regard. While the EC conducted research on the electoral practises of other countries, it found out that countries like Bhutan, Mexico and many other Western European countries have mechanisms to check misuse of poll promises. These measures range from legal enforceability of the manifesto to the manifesto being subjected to audits. Sadly neither the EC nor the legislature could form any concrete guidelines owing to the lack of consensus among political parties. This clearly points out the apathy of the political parties to the issue of electoral reform. In 2016 the Madras High Court came down heavily on the EC, the Ministry of Parliamentary affairs and the other respondents for their failure to curb this electoral practice. It scathingly remarked on the poor state of affairs in the following words:
“We will cook food for you in your residence”-party
“We will not only cook, but also feed you”-opposite party
The present petition before the SC gives it the opportunity to revisit its 2013 ruling and expand the scope of section 123 of the RP Act to political parties. It is imminent that the EC incorporates guidelines taking inspiration from Bhutan, Mexico and other nations to ensure that elections are fair and free and are not tainted with corruption.
Our leaders must discard the myopic lens of getting electoral gains and the people must demand accountability and sound policy making from them. Will Leamon said, “Sooner or later there will always be a cost for “Free Stuff”, we must realise the futility of freebie politics.
The article has been written by Harshita Gupta, student of law (2nd semester) at National Law University, Jodhpur. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.