Every election season, the rain of the freebies begins. The real monsoon may fail but this monsoon never does. The people are suddenly swamped by a flood of promises. Suddenly, political parties of all ideologies remember the poor aam aadmi whose needs and aspirations must be met urgently. Whether it’s women, youth, Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes or minorities, slum dwellers or residents of unauthorised colonies, they all become important. Their needs and desires are rediscovered. The promises are wide-ranging — free power and water, cheap foodgrain, televisions, washing machines, pressure cookers, farm loans, school uniforms and books and, to keep pace with the 21st century, laptops and smartphones.
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The promises can be divided into two groups: Those before the announcement of elections and those after the announcement when the model code of conduct comes into play. Promises before the announcement of elections are the privilege of the ruling parties who belatedly remember the commitments they had made before the previous election but had forgotten conveniently. These may include subsidies, price cuts, reservations, new schemes, etc. The party is in a hurry to make such announcements before the model code of conduct kicks in. It does not seem to matter what damage the populist schemes would do to the economy of the state. The intelligentsia and economists start debating bad economics versus good politics. The verdict, however, is announced by the voters.
Promises of the second kind are the ones announced through the manifesto, released before or after the elections have been announced. These did not attract the model code of conduct — till recently. The Rs 2 kilo rice, free TVs, laptops, bicycles etc have all happened through this device. Ideally, the manifestoes should be announced immediately after the announcement of the poll schedule by the Election Commission. But the parties tend to wait till the very end so that they can out-promise their rivals. After the first manifesto is out, a fierce debate follows about the legality or propriety of the promises, besides the feasibility of their implementation. The EC is flooded with requests to declare them illegal.
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The fact is that manifestoes are perfectly legal, even if their promises are unrealistic and irresponsible. The EC had no power to question these. The matter had gone to the Supreme Court which also found itself faced with a great dilemma. In its judgement of July 5, 2013, it accepted that the manifesto promises cannot be construed as “corrupt practices” under the Representation of the People Act though they do “influence” the people and “shake the roots of free and fair elections”. It directed the EC to frame guidelines with regard to the content of manifestoes in consultation with all the recognised political parties.
In their meeting with the EC, most political parties, as expected, vehemently opposed any regulation, arguing that, in a democracy, it is their “right and duty” towards voters to make such offers and promises through the manifestoes. Agreeing with this in principle, the EC, however, mentioned its “undesirable impact”. In deference to the SC directions, the EC issued guidelines for political parties to state the rationale for the promises in the manifestoes and the ways and means to meet the financial requirement for them. These guidelines were added to the model code of conduct as Part VIII.
On August 23, 2016, the AIADMK was “censured” for not giving a rationale and ways and means to meet financial requirements for a whole range of poll promises in its manifesto for the Tamil Nadu assembly election in 2016. This was held a violation of the guidelines on election manifestoes contained in Part VIII of the model code of conduct. On the same day, the DMK was also held guilty of not giving the rationale for the promises and ways and means to meet the financial requirements, though the party provided it to the EC subsequently in reply to its notice. It was “advised” to be careful in future. The manifesto being a perfectly legal and legitimate democratic instrument, if the promises are unrealistic or absurd, it is more important for the rival parties to expose the deceit. Even if the common voters do not understand that the promises are un-implementable, they do remember what promises were made at the last election and have not been fulfilled. Voters are now seen to be constantly rewarding good governance and punishing non-delivery.
A moot question is why the politicians have memory loss and forget their promises after the election, their minds becoming fertile with all the bright ideas for new schemes only around the next elections. Voters, gullible though they are, have come to understand it. Opposition parties and the ever alert media keep reminding them of forgotten or broken pledges. A contrarian view, however, is that promises like cheap foodgrain and free items of utility have done considerable good. With Rs 2 kg rice, starvation deaths don’t happen any more. The necessities/comforts of life which people could see only in their dreams now sometimes reach them. Distribution of bicycles in Bihar has improved enrolment and retention of girls in schools. Loan waivers for farmers have prevented many suicides. Employment guarantee schemes have brought visible relief to the rural poor (but scarcity of domestic help for the urban rich!).
The new reality is that with all the parties offering the same or similar freebies, the expected political advantage gets neutralised. Whichever party the people vote for, they will end up getting a similar package. Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagged the need for simultaneous elections. The reasons he gave were the disruption of the normal working of government and the enormous cost of the election to political parties and the government. One could add one more reason for this demand — too many elections mean too many populist promises that affect the economy.