“The voter should not complain; he should command. He should not desire; he must demand. He should not grumble and grudge but should assess and assert. The voter should see that he votes for a principle and not for a party, that he votes for a party and not for a personality, that he votes for a person and not for the purse. Let him consider the cause and not the caste; go with the worthy rather than with the winner. Choose the right man and see that the man you choose wins; that will be your victory. If you simply go as a camp follower of the man who has created an impassion that he win, you have already lost, whatever the result of the election be. Vote is a matter of conscience. Do not sell it. Do not destroy it. When you vote take a momentous decision, please do not take it just on the spur of the moment”
— Pt Deendayal Upadhyaya, Your Vote – 1, Organiser, December 4, 1961
The Supreme Court rightly remarked – There are no free lunches – on the issue of ‘freebies’. On August 22, 2022, the Apex Court started listening to the arguments on the PIL filed by lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, opposing the practice of political parties promising freebies during elections. The litigation also seeks the Election Commission to invoke its powers to freeze their election symbols and cancel their registration. The issue is complicated and therefore, needs greater deliberation at the national level, beyond the courtroom.
The discussion on poll manifestos and election promises is not new. While adopting the lofty ‘socialist’ ideals itself, the state’s role in welfare has been discussed and deliberated upon. In 2013 also, the top court in the judgement of S. Subramaniam Balaji v. State of Tamil Nadu (2013) addressed the same issue. The verdict clarifies that though the election promises cannot be construed as “corrupt practice”, the distribution of freebies influences voting behaviour. The Election Commission has also clarified that the promise of freebies at the government cost disturbs the level playing field and vitiates the electoral process.
The real issue is the method of differentiating between freebies and cross-subsidisation. As the Court is mulling over appointing an expert panel to delve over one of the core issues of the democratic process – what can be promised to the electorates while seeking their votes – we need to draw fine lines between these concepts.
Of course, in a democracy, there will be political programmes, and to fulfil them, political parties will make promises to the voters. There are Constitutional objectives, and as mentioned in Article 38 (1), the elected governments are expected ‘to promote the welfare of the people’. Few much-discussed schemes help us in drawing the lines between cross-subsidisation-based welfare schemes and freebies, as explained in a report by Reserved Bank of Bharat.
In the ‘State Finances: Risk Analysis’ report, the Apex bank has warned about the financial risks arising for the states from their “declining own tax revenue, increase in expenditure following growing preference for distribution of ‘freebies’, and rising overdue of loss-making DISCOMs.” The total outstanding liabilities of the States amount to a staggering number – Rs. 59,89,360 crores. The PDS, employment generation, and support in health and education – the fundamental things necessary to support and empower the marginalised through cross-subsidisation – should be considered welfare policies intended for the public good. On the other hand, pre-election declarations of free electricity, free water, free public transportation, waiver of pending utility bills and farm loan waivers etc. must be considered freebies.
Political parties can and should be allowed to make lofty promises, but they should be held accountable for the assurances given. A cost-benefit analysis of the same should be presented to the public. Does the mad race of making unrealistic promises strengthen our democracy? Do we want to continue with the bribery culture, where mindless promises, kinds and goods are allowed to flow during the election season? Should we allow our society to be State dependent on everything or empowerment, both social institutions and individuals through schemes, should be our goal. Many countries are grappling with a debt crisis leading to collapse of the political system. We should be reinvigorating social structures to create an efficient and industrious population. The Revadi Culture (freebies against votes) is not just a quick passport for fiscal disaster but a guaranteed visa for an unproductive nation.