The Precarious Trap Of Election Freebies

by Anudha Singhai, Symbiosis Law School, Noida.

 “Sooner or later, there will be a cost for the freebies”- Will Leamon

Source : The Economic Times

Election campaigns in India have developed over time to maximize votes by employing various techniques. To guarantee the support of the people, political parties pledge to provide free electricity, water, monthly allowances to unemployed, daily wage workers, women, and gadgets like laptops, cell phones, and other electronic devices. The recent practice of political parties attempting to sway voters by offering freebies in the run-up to elections is a threat to democratic norms and a violation of the Constitution’s spirit. A large number of countries are currently offering freebies to gain votes. 

The petition has recently been filed in the Hon'ble Supreme Court asking the Electoral Commission of India (ECI) to take an election symbol or deregister a political party that promises or distributes “irrational freebies” from public monies before elections. The Supreme Court recently stated that political parties competing for freebies during electioneering have the potential to destabilize state finances and taint free and fair elections. “It’s a severe matter,” said Honorable CJI Shri NV Ramana. The budget for giveaways exceeds the standard allocation.”

How Have Freebie Politics Evolved?

Nobody could have predicted that Annadurai’s promise to provide the needy rice at a ridiculously low price would turn into a gigantic welfare scheme in which political parties would distribute washing machines, television sets, and other items in Tamil Nadu in 1967. This free-for-all government paradigm has virulently grown across India’s political spectrum, aided by poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance among the Indian people. Every time elections are announced, parties aim to entice people with a fresh set of materialistic and false promises rather than asking for votes based on their performance. Now that the Supreme Court has accepted Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay’s petition against the misuse of election promises, it’s more important than ever to grasp the dangers of freebie politics. Voters are also satisfied when they receive immediate pleasure, such as free energy, rather than an honest promise of safe drinking water, health, or education. 


What Does The Law Say?

In the case of S. Subramaniam Balaji vs. Government of Tamil Nadu, 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that unrealistic political promises and giveaways are a severe issue that disrupts election fairness. Even though the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Tamil Nadu, stating that promises made in an election manifesto cannot be construed as a “corrupt practice” under section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, it acknowledged that the distribution of gifts by political parties does influence the electorate and “shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large extent.” The court noted that there is no enactment that directly oversees the substance of an election manifesto and instructs the Election Commission of India (ECI) to draft rules in conjunction with all recognized political parties.” Unfortunately, due to a lack of consensus among political parties, neither the EC nor the legislature was able to develop any specific rules. This demonstrates the major parties’ indifference to election reform. The EC, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs, and the other defendants were strongly criticized by the Madras High Court in 2016 for their failure to stop this election conduct. In the following terms, it scathingly reflected on the sorry state of affairs:

  • “We will cook food for you in your residence”-party
  • “We will not only cook but also feed you”-opposite party.

Problems Involving The Freebie Culture

The concept of competitive freebie politics raises numerous concerns regarding the political process’s integrity. Giving out such ‘gifts’ is almost the same as bribing votes and defrauding taxpayers, who faithfully pay taxes in the hope that they will be used for nation-building. Francois Bourguignon wrote in an article that while certain solutions produce immediate effects, they do not tackle the problem of poverty in the long run. Other factors, such as access to good education and healthcare, lay the groundwork for a fair level of living. The existing techniques used by parties may provide temporary gratification, but they are not a solution to the country’s problems. It amounts to unethical behaviour akin to bribing the electorate. Principle of Inequality: Using public monies to distribute private products or services that are not for public purposes before an election breaches many provisions of the Constitution, notably Article 14. (equality before law). Another issue with poll promises is that parties do not conduct sufficient research. Many parties claim to announce their manifestos after undertaking grassroots consultations, but they don’t back up their claims with research findings. For example, none of the major political parties has explained how they determined what policies were needed for a specific state. The lack of transparency in the creation of manifestos, as well as the exclusion of stakeholders, bode ill for our democracy.

In the context of Indian democracy, the distribution of freebies in the form of cash, bribes, free rice, saris, or debt waivers, as well as its mandated practice by political parties, has largely taken centre stage in all election campaigns. As a result, there has been an increase in the distribution of freebies to voters during the pre-and post-election period, which has resulted in the collection of votes and the formation of a vote bank. Everything has to be paid by taxes, if not today or tomorrow, then the next day, for the cost of the ostensibly free offerings must eventually be borne by someone. Citizens are required to pay for gifts given by governments. It isn’t always the wealthy who foot the bill. Governments collect taxes on everything from matchboxes to diamonds, so the poor are frequently the ones who pay for the gifts. 

Way Forward

The first thing that must be abandoned is the obscurity that surrounds the manifesto-making process. The Election Commission should examine the Constitution’s provisions and, rather than relying on party agreement, bring giveaways like free power within the model code of conduct. The Indian judiciary has interfered with course correction whenever the executive has failed to run the administration effectively through the Public Interest Litigation route whenever the executive has failed to run the administration effectively. The Commission must act decisively, or the Supreme Court should reconsider its 2013 decision and impose a complete cessation of freebies. 

Views expressed are the author’s own, 

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