The country witnessed six assembly polls this year with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) managing to tip the scales in its favour in the Hindi heartland while the grand old party- Congress, winning two southern states- Karnataka and Telangana.
The BJP which was unable to repeat its government in Karnataka conducted early this year, was able to wrest power from Congress in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and comprehensively retain power in Madhya Pradesh.
Not surprisingly, the last few months witnessed heated debates over freebies making a comeback, as political parties banked on populist announcements ranging from reservations for women and income guarantee schemes, to free education to woo voters in crucial constituencies.
However, it’s worth recalling that there is no legal definition of the word ‘freebie’, but it is broadly defined it as a public welfare measure that is provided free of charge.
But it is also important to make the distinction between freebies that are beneficial from those that could undermine credit culture, distort prices, and disincentives work at the current wage.
The public distribution system, employment guarantee schemes, and support for education and health can be considered as freebies while the likes of free electricity and water as well as a waiver of pending utility bills can be considered as the medium to undermine credit culture.
The major risk associated with rampant subsidies or freebies is an increase in fiscal deficit as such measures create additional pressure on revenues.
In Karnataka assembly polls, Congress in the run-up to elections had given five major guarantees — Rs 2,000 monthly assistance to women heads of all families (Gruhalakshmi), 200 units of power to all households (Gruhajyoti), Rs 3,000 every month for graduate youth and Rs 1,500 for diploma holders (Yuvanidhi), 10 kg rice per person per month (Annabhagya) and free travel for women in the State public transport buses (Uchita Prayana).
Some of the promises made by other parties include Janata Dal (Secular): a Rs 2 lakh cash incentive to brides of young farmers, five free cooking gas cylinders per year, and loan waivers for women self-help groups; the Aam Aadmi Party: free electricity to the tune of 300 units, free bus travel for students, and a one-time loan waiver for small farmers.
In the final lap of the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections, former CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan had made several announcements, including the Ladli Behna Scheme, to provide monthly financial support to women.
The BJP banked heavily on this scheme to woo women voters. Congress, on the other hand, tried to make it a class war with demand for a caste census and raising the issue of SC/ST atrocities in the state.
The party also promised several schemes including LPG cylinders for Rs 500.
For its women voters, the BJP banked on cash income transfers under the Ladli Behna scheme, rolled out earlier this year which guaranteed almost 1.31 crore women, between 23 and 60 years of age, of low-income households (less than Rs 2.5 lakh per annum) a monthly aid of Rs 1,250, along with a pakka house. The amount may gradually increase to Rs 3,000, the party said. The party also promised beneficiaries of the Centre’s Ujjwala Yojana LPG cylinders at a subsidised rate of Rs 450.
In addition, the BJP guaranteed skill development activities for 15 lakh women living in rural areas; a payment of Rs 2 lakh to girl children until the age of 21; free education from kindergarten to postgraduation to girl students from disadvantaged families. Each Scheduled Tribe-designated block would also have an Eklavya Model Residential School. Under the Ladli Lakshmi Yojana,launched by the party in 2007, the BJP promised to increase the financial assistance from Rs 1.43 lakh to Rs 2 lakh.
Congress, on the other hand promised for Rs 25-lakh health insurance cover and accident insurance up to Rs 10 lakh for all families, a caste-based survey, 27 per cent reservation to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs, farm loan waiver up to Rs 2 lakh and implementation of the Old Pension Scheme (OPS).
In the 106-page document, the Congress promised to purchase wheat from farmers at Rs 2,600 per quintal, rice at Rs 2,500 per quintal, and an allowance of Rs 1,500-Rs 3,000 to unemployed youth. It also announced the Nandini Gau-Dhan Yojana under which cow dung will be purchased at Rs 2 per kg.
For the Chhattisgarh assembly elections, both the Congress and BJP tried hard to woo farmers, women and the poor with populist schemes.
The promises made by the BJP, which it promoted as ‘Modi ki Guarantee 2023‘, worked in its favour to an extent as it returned to power in the tribal-dominated state with a thumping majority.
As the BJP began its election campaign this time, it faced the herculean task of countering the Bhupesh Baghel government’s pro-farmers, pro-tribals and pro-poor schemes, which the Congress was banking on to retain the state.
The Congress laid out a host of promises, including raising the annual financial assistance given to landless labourers under ‘Rajiv Gandhi Bhoomihin Kisan Nyay Yojna‘ from Rs 7,000 to Rs 10,000, providing free education from “KG to PG” (kindergarten to post-graduation) and free electricity up 200 units.
Offering more, it promised a subsidy of Rs 500 on domestic gas cylinders to women, purchase of tendu leaves per bag for Rs 6,000 and annual bonus of Rs 4,000 to tenu leaf collectors, free treatment up to Rs 10 lakh to the poor, free treatment to victim in road accidents and loan waiver of self-help groups.
The Congress also declared that the state would procure 20 quintals of paddy per acre from farmers in this kharif season. During electioneering, it promised loan waiver to farmers, also made by it in 2018.
BJP’s promises included procurement of 21 quintals of paddy per acre at Rs 3,100 per quintal, annual financial assistance of Rs 12,000 to married women under the ‘Mahtari Vandan Yojana‘, construction of 18 lakh houses under ‘PM Awas Yojna‘, tendu leaf procurement at Rs 5,500 per standard sack and bonus of Rs 4,500 to leaf collectors and annual assistance of Rs 10,000 to landless farm labourers.
Cooking gas cylinders at Rs 500 each to women from poor families, monthly travel allowance to students for going to college, an ‘ashvasan‘ (assurance) certificate worth Rs 1.50 lakh to BPL (below poverty line) families on birth of girl child, free trips to Ayodhya to visit Ram Temple were among other populist promises of the BJP.
In Rajasthan, the Congress promised to bring a law to implement the minimum support price (MSP), following the Swaminathan Commission’s recommendations. It also decided to provide interest-free loans of up to Rs 2 lakh to all farmers from cooperative banks, and withdraw pending cases against farmers in connection with their participation in protests.
The Congress also promised free travel for women in state buses and, like in Rajasthan, the party promised to give electric scooters to female students above the age of 18. Under the Kalyanamastu scheme, the party promised to give 10 grams of gold, along with Rs 1 lakh, to girls belonging to the BPL families at the time of their marriage. It also promised to develop a skill development centre for aspiring women entrepreneurs, and strengthen the women’s police force, and expand it in villages and towns.
In comparison, the BJP promised to provide additional assistance of Rs 12,000 to farmers under the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi, free education to farmers’ children, an additional bonus of Rs 2,700 per quintal over the MSP on wheat, along with providing MSP on jowar and bajra.
In Telangana, the BJP promised to provide a fertiliser subsidy of over Rs 18,000 per acre as well as input assistance to small and marginal farmers, along with free crop insurance under the PM Fasal Bima Yojana. It also promised to procure paddy at Rs 3,100, give free desi milk-yielding cows to willing farmers, and develop a “first of its kind Nizamabad Turmeric City”.
In comparison, the Congress repeated its promise of providing farm loan waivers, and increased bonuses on all crops over the Centre-mandated MSP. It also promised to give financial assistance of Rs 15,000 per acre to land-owning and tenant farmers, and Rs 12,000 per annum to landless labourers. Among other commitments, it promised to establish a Turmeric Board, provide insurance and integrate agricultural work into MGNREGA.
In Mizoram, the BJP once again promised to increase financial assistance under PM Kisan Samman Nidhi, along with an investment of Rs 1,000 crore to revamp agricultural infrastructure, Dairy Mission and Tropical Fruit Mission, to support dairy and fruit farming. It also committed to providing an annual support of Rs 6,000 to fish farmers.
The Congress promised to support farmers and entrepreneurs in developing sustainable economic and livelihood activities through the ‘Tang Puihna’ scheme, under which it will provide a monetary assistance of Rs 2 lakh.
However, the results of the elections proved that the freebies alone cannot win any party an election.
For example, first used in the Himachal Pradesh polls last year, the return of the OPS was one of the Congress’s manifesto promises in five assembly elections since then — Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Telangana.
However, except for Himachal, the Congress lost three other assembly polls where the OPS was played up — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chattisgarh. In Karnataka and Telangana, where it wasn’t a major poll issue, the party won historic mandates.
Meanwhile, according to the economists, the major risk associated with rampant subsidies or freebies is an increase in fiscal deficit as such measures create additional pressure on revenues.
(With inputs from ANI)