Published on: August 13, 2022
Why in news?
The Supreme Court refused to consider the question of derecognising political parties who promise freebies.
- The top court was considering the question of reining in the practice of political parties offering “irrational freebies” to the electorate if they are voted to power, especially in States which are already drowning in debt
- the court said ‘freebies’ were different from the welfare schemes of the government. It said carefree promises and distribution of freebies by political parties and actual government welfare schemes were as different as chalk and cheese. One leads to sheer loss to the national economy while the other feeds the poor in drought-ridden areas and distributes care during COVID-19
- the court was striving for a balance between the welfare requirements of the people, especially the poor and the downtrodden, and the need to avert a national economic loss through unbridled distribution of largesse by political parties to hold on to power
- the court proposed to form an expert body to recommend guidelines against freebies. the proposed expert body should, along with representatives of national parties, the RBI, Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, etc, also have members of the industry.
What are Freebies?
- Political parties promise to offer free electricity/water supply, monthly allowance to unemployed, daily wage workers, and women as well as gadgets like laptops, smartphones, etc. in order to secure the vote of the people.
- The states have become habituated to giving freebies, be it in the form of loan waivers or free electricity, cycles, laptops, TV sets, and so on.
How Extensive is the Freebie Model of Governance in India?
- The practice is used more by state governments as a political tool for state assembly elections.
- The state of Tamil Nadu is infamous for introducing and being the lead player in freebie culture.
- The practice has now spread to northern states as well. Recently the Delhi government announced a power and water free of charge and free bus pass for women. The announcements were made around 6 months before elections.
- The culture of freebies have been observed in other states such as Telangana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc.
What is the Rationale behind the Freebie Model?
- Political parties resort to freebies culture in order to secure a victory in the upcoming elections.
- Even if a lot of commitments have been fulfilled in the social welfare sector, some political and parties feel it’s insufficient.
- : in Delhi, the government has performed well in the sectors like health and education. But the party in power chose to make extra efforts fearing that development in only two sectors won’t help them in the upcoming election.
- If both competing parties are equally promising freebies, there will be less guarantee on who will win. However, it will mobilise a small share of votes which is crucial in winning an election.
How Justified or Sustainable is the Freebie Model?
- The model is neither sustainable nor economically viable.
- India is a vibrant democracy which is looked upon by the entire world, especially in developing countries as a role model of democracy. Practices such as freebies underestimate the electoral judgement of the voter, the election process, the political system and parliamentary democracy.
- It’s an unhealthy practice which takes up the taxpayer’s money which is not appreciated by many voters. But still parties continue the practice.
- In Delhi, free ride passes for women in the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) alone would cost around Rs. 300 Cr. per year. It will make the passengers, who can afford the fare, irresponsible. It may not help the poor
- Since the money used for providing freebies need to be funded from the overall budget, other important schemes will suffer.
- If the government opts for freebies just before election, it indicates that the party in power is not sure whether they have identified and fulfilled people’s needs.
- The parties in the opposition have often criticised the announcement of freebies by the parties in power but there are exceptions.
What are some other Challenges Posed by the Model?
- The powers of EC is limited in regulating the freebie culture if introduced by party in power
- There is no legality to these promises made by political parties. The promises made in the election manifesto cannot be construed as ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of Peoples Act.
- Freebies and poll promises are different in many aspects.
Difference between subsidies and freebies
- Subsidies are required for the proper functioning of a government to fulfil peoples’ needs. However, it is sometimes confused with freebies. Opposition parties can at the most question the source of funds but can’t legally stop government functioning.
Does the Model Always Work?
- Sometimes both the major parties will offer freebies or poll promises, but in a Democracy only one of them will win. Ex.: in Tamil Nadu.
- Winning in elections depend on multiple factors.
- Subsidies in a particular sector for only a certain section of voters may not assure victory in election. Ex.: Security and safety are more important for women than free ride passes.
- If the people are confident about the government taking care of their needs, they wouldn’t need freebies at all.
- It is also believed that the culture is just a passing phase. As governments come under performance pressure, the culture will recede and other constructive programmes will take over its place.
Judicial Intervention against the Freebie Culture:
- In 2013, the existence of freebie culture in Tamil Nadu have been challenged in the Supreme Court ( Subramaniam Balaji vs. Govt. of Tamil Nadu).
- The apex court identified that the case falls in the domain of the Election Commission (EC) and gave certain guidelines to the EC to revise the model Code of Conduct to check the corrupt practices.
- The SC also observed that the unhealthy practice is bringing a bad name to Indian democracy.
- The new model code of conduct has included clear guidelines to ensure that political parties do not make such promises in their manifestos.
- It states that distribution of freebies of any kind undoubtedly influence the people and it shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree.
What are the Drawbacks of Freebies?
- Macroeconomically Unstable: Freebies undercut the basic framework of macroeconomic stability, the politics of freebies distorts expenditure priorities and outlays remain concentrated on subsidies of one kind or the other.
- Impact on States’ Fiscal Situation: Offering freebies, ultimately, have an impact on the public exchequer and most of the states of India do not have robust financial health and often have very limited resources in terms of revenue.
- Against Free and Fair Election: The promise of irrational freebies from public funds before elections unduly influences the voters, disturbs the level playing field, and vitiates the purity of the poll process.
- A Step Away from the Environment: When the freebies are about giving free power, it would lead to overuse of natural resources and focus from renewable energy system will also get distracted.
How to Stop the Model of Freebies?
- The onus of eliminating the practice lies with the EC, the courts, the political parties and ultimately the voters.
- All over the world, elections are fought based on the performance of the government or the lack of it.
- If the voters are wise and educated enough, they won’t fall for such tricks. Even after accepting freebies, they can choose to vote according to the performance of the government or the lack of it. If they reject freebies and promises, political parties will forward for more constructive programmes. The rejection should start with Panchayat raj and state assembly elections.
- Parliamentary Democracy depends on the strength of political parties in power as well as in opposition. They must become more responsible while drafting their schemes and manifestos respectively.
- Political parties need to analyse whether their strategy has worked or not in the previous elections. If they focus more on main issues of the time, i.e., food, jobs, national security, etc. half the battle is won even before the election.
Promises need to be more specific rather than generic. Ex.: promises for the welfare of a certain section of needy people.