It is said that nothing in this world is for free. However, human psychology is such that people tend to get lured towards free gifts, vouchers, etc. offered by marketing companies who are trapping and eventually converting the potential prospects into clients in a way which is legal, permitted and well disclosed to the target audience in advance. But, what are the consequences if such freebies become part and parcel of electioneering in a vibrant democracy like India?
India has seen political parties rampantly offering freebies to voters at the time of elections. It has never been a secret that even cash is offered to voters. But political parties are increasingly offering electoral promises of doling out freebies to the voters, freebies like free electricity, water, internet, public transport, and even free meals, if they vote their political party to power. Freebie culture has reached such alarming proportions that most of the election agenda of some political parties are, as well thought strategy, based only on offers of freebies, explicitly sending a message to voters that they shall get loads of freebies if the political party wins. This leads to various questions including whether such a strategy of offering freebies for manipulating voters’ minds and coming to power is ethical, legal, and permissible in a democracy?
Historically in the 1960’s the political parties in South India embarked on the freebies culture by offering free or heavily subsidized rice. Later the strategy was copied across the nation when it became acceptable to offer free education and healthcare, as these topics were even seen to be in tandem with Constitutional welfare objectives. 2015 saw Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) offering a certain amount of free water and electricity free to urban voters. One can understand provision of uninterrupted electricity 24X7, but provision of a certain amount of free electricity is by no way in sync with Constitutional and Welfare objectives and is definitely a quid pro quo proposition.
Although India has a history of being the oldest democracy, post-independence from Britishers we are still a young nation. Many Indian Laws are still evolving, Constitutional provisions are still being interpreted and challenged, Political parties are innovating their ways to manage voter perception and win elections. The Indian market too is appearing like a robust capitalist economy in contrast to being a socialist nation as written in our Constitution. The Representation of Peoples Act 1951, defines corrupt practices by Political candidates and consequentially bribing voters to influence voting is prohibited. In such a scenario, political parties have gone strategizing their campaigning methods a bit too far. Offering of free education from one end of the imagination to offering free electricity, water, clothes, travel, televisions set etc. on the other end speaks about the magnitude of the abuse of election rules our Political parties have engaged into to influence voters and grab power.
Economists make a distinction between merit goods and non-merit goods. Merit goods are those that have positive externalities instead of private benefit motives. Merit goods such as education, health care, and subsidies to curb poverty have a positive impact on society as well as on the economy. But what is merit and non-merit goods are not always readily discriminable.
The necessity of one group of society can be a luxury for others. Distribution of Cycles, Sewing Machines, Laptop, etc can serve as a purposeful growth if targeted and delivered to the right section of the society. For growth purposes: government runs schemes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day meals, employment guarantee schemes, health, and education-related subsidies, subsidies to farmers to an extent, etc facilitate growth. Freebies are not all about pre-election promises, they include a variety of services that the government offers to fulfill its constitutional obligations (Directive Principles of State Policy) towards citizens, such as the Public Distribution System (PDS), National Food Security Mission, Free Covid Vaccine, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, etc. As a large share of the population is suffering from poverty, such freebies are essential for their upliftment.
Create economic instabilities: It has the potential to hamper robust financial health. It forces states to divert resources from welfare schemes to politically motivated agendas. The irrational freebies are against the free and fair election and in the long run, will hamper democracy by ending disturbing the level playing field. The culture of freebies will automatically lead to irresponsibility toward natural resources and overuse of resources and it will cause greater damage to the environment. Such as Free Power, Free water, etc. Subsidies and freebies increase the fiscal deficit and put pressure on government revenue, that furthermore increases the deficit.
Freebies badly influence the decision-making power of the voters.
Giving away loan waivers as freebies could have unintended repercussions, such as ruining the entire credit culture and obscuring the fundamental question of why a substantial portion of the farming community is continuously falling into debt traps. Economic turmoil in Sri Lanka is an example of the repercussions of freebie politics.
If nothing stops a political candidate from offering irrational freebies, the day is not far when some of them will offer the moon and the stars to influence the voters.
During August 2022, the Supreme Court stated that the Parliament may not be able to effectively debate the issue of doing away with irrational freebies offered to voters during elections, mentioning that the “reality” is that not a single political party wants to take away freebies. The Supreme Court advised of setting up a specialized body composed of persons who can “dispassionately” examine the problem. Finally considering various arguments from all sides, the Supreme Court has referred the issue to a three Judge bench for examination.
The lawmakers have a better understanding of how their investment will flourish in the future. Instead of a politically motivated will, a welfare approach is needed at this hour. The economic impact must be kept in mind how it impacts the economic health of the state and must consider how it is going to enhance the life of the beneficiary. It is important to distinguish between welfare and freebies by the states, as said by the Supreme Court. Also, to make sure that there is no leakage in delivery and that it directly benefits the target audience. Voters in a democracy have the power to stop or permit the march of freebies. It’s important to have a consensus on how to control the irrational freebies while also ensuring that the fallacious promises don’t influence voters. The Model Code of Conduct for Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates would be rigorously enforced by the Election Commission of India to control election manifestos and prohibit the manipulation of informed voter behavior.
Dr. S. Krishnan is an Associate Professor in Seedling School of Law and Governance, Jaipur National University, Jaipur.