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The Role of Freebies in Indian Election

After encountering the topic at first instance, the primary question which arises in our mind is-

what is a freebie? The informal word "freebie" implies a thing that is provided to a person by any organization, company or a state without paying for it or given out for free especially for gaining support or favor. In case of state, freebie could be well defined as a positive step towards making equilibrium in society regarding the use of certain basic amenities which the weaker section could not afford otherwise thus strengthening the concept of welfare state. Similarly, according to Cambridge Dictionary freebie is something which is given mainly for attracting one's support.

Freebies play one of the crucial roles during elections in India because the amount of freebies in election manifesto dramatically determines your vote banks. Political parties make hefty promises to offer free electronic gadgets, waver of pending loans, free supply of electricity and water, monthly allowances to women and senior citizens, offering employment opportunities, etc. for securing their vote banks during elections.

Nowadays, the word 'freebie' is in vogue due to a PIL[i] filed before the Supreme Court of India by a BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay seeking court's intervention to curb irrational freebies financed with public money offered ahead of elections by the political parties and deregister them for committing such prohibited act which amounts to bribing the voters. The issue got reignited with the PM, Narendra Modi's statement that this 'revadi culture' (freebies culture) needs to be removed from the country.

The issue of freebies attracted a lot of diverse and divided opinions. One view is that there are certain amenities and services like water, electricity, sewage, education, health, etc. which common people cannot manage for themselves, therefore, it is provided by state under its welfare concept and the extent of its being free is decided on the basis of governments' fiscal space. The Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs) enshrined under Part IV of the Indian Constitution also supports this concept of welfare state.

Similarly, Article 282 of the Constitution provides that the Union or State may make any grants for any public purpose.[ii] Freebies facilitates the growth of a country by uplifting marginalized sections of the society like waving unpaid loans encourage farmers to contribute more and more towards the agrarian aspect of economy, providing free electronic gadgets to young students for higher studies increases human resource of the country, similarly giving monthly allowances to women decrease their financial dependency and empower them to grab growth opportunities. In a stratified society where capital gets concentrated in the hands of elites, the poor and the marginalized become victimized. Here, social welfare measures that are otherwise ridiculed as freebies act as a shock absorber.

The other view opines that the freebies are tantamount to bribery and misuse of tax-payers' money. The Representation of People Act, 1951 provides provisions to uphold the constitutional right of free and fair election. Freebies during elections hinder the constitutional mandate of free and fair election by creating an undue influence on the electorates and disturbing poll process. It manipulates the free choice of electorates and has become an easy shortcut to tackle the competitive attitude of being in power among political parties.

Worst than this, the ruling party to cover up its failure in running appropriate economic policies turns towards the culture of freebies and creates a cradle to grave welfare state. This view asserts that a distinction must be made between expenditure on social welfare schemes and irrational freebies offered to voters ahead of the elections. However, exception lies only during natural disaster wherein the government is obliged to provide basic amenities for free irrespective of anything.

By citing the example of Sri Lanka, Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in its report asserted that providing several free goods and cutting down of taxes compel the economy of a country to collapse and drown in heavy debt which makes it tumultuous to recover. Thus, too much emphasis on freebies paves the wave for disruption of state finances and create a condition in which the state even failed to provide basic amenities due to lack of finances and as a consequence, pushed towards insolvency.

There are certain other causes which show that it is not about how cheap the freebies are but how expensive the consequences it bear in the field of economy, social cohesion, environment, etc. in long run. The distortion in fiscal sustainability, social inequality due to intergenerational equity, adverse effect on environment, lower quality of manufacturing sector and sub-national bankruptcy are some of the instances.

The Supreme Court in the matter of S Subramaniam Balaji v. Government of Tamil Nadu [iii] gave directives which empowered Election Commission to restrict a party if its manifesto fails to provide a proper rational nexus between the particular promise and its mobilization. This resulted in addition of a new chapter to the model code of conduct that parties should avoid pre-election promises which affects the informed decision-making and exerts an undue influence on the electorates.

It also stated that only those promises should be made which are intended to be fulfilled as welfare measure after gaining power. The court in this judgment wisely stressed on the cons of freebies which leads the state towards debt traps.

The culture of freebies is so engraved in our country that it cannot be done away easily. It needs a healthy deliberation at national level. Making pre-election promises which are not meant to be fulfilled is insulting the idea of democracy. For combating irrational freebies, policy-makers and Election Commission must play an active role by putting checks on the activities of political parties.

Unless the notion that 'incentives' provided to the elites are 'affirmative economic measure' while the same when provided to the poor are 'freebies' is corrected in the minds of policymakers, adjudicators and elites (both are economic/social welfare interventions in different forms), this asymmetrical conflict will continue to exist.[iv]

While concluding it is affirmed that every idea has its own benefits and loopholes so as freebies culture. Inspite of banning a political party for pre-election promises in the form of freebies, the Election Commission should make them accountable for the means of funding it. Giving freebies to marginalized sections of the society is beneficial until and unless it does not hamper the financial stability of a country.

Therefore, the political parties should make promises to strike a balance between fiscal deficit and welfare spending. For welfare, redistributive mechanism can be the best way to come up with, whereas, fiscal deficit can be tackled by making more revenue through taxation apart from income tax.

The hard earned money of tax-payers should not go in vain by helping political parties to fulfill their political agenda. Political parties while making pre-election promises must have a bonafide intention for contributing towards the welfare state rather than luring voters. Apart from engaging in rat race by promising low taxes and providing more freebies they should strive towards efficiency and harness innovative ideas in the country. They must realize that path to efficiency is the path to prosperity.

  1. Writ Petition (Civil) No. 43 of 2022.
  2. Article 282: Expenditure defrayable by the Union or a State out of its revenues- The Union or a State may make any grants for any public purpose, notwithstanding that the purpose is not one with respect to which Parliament or the Legislature of the State, as the case may be, may make laws
  3. 2 Civil Appeal No. 5130 of 2013.
  4. Puhazh Gandhi P., "End this asymmetrical conflict over freebies", The Hindu, August 20, 2022.
Written By:
  1. Ritika Singh, University of Allahabad And
  2. Shubhi Pandey, University of Allahabad

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