Elections in India are usually a time of enticing promises and elaborate offers when all politicians are suddenly and touchingly concerned by the everyday plight of the common citizen. Free electricity and water, cheaper food grain and fuel, bicycles, phones, laptops and wads of cash usually appear on the menu of offerings.
There are two questions here: First, is this fanciful, excessive and often misleading vein of promise-making indistinguishable from the state-led provision of basic goods in a rights-based, welfarist apparatus? Second, must there be judicial or EC intervention to tackle the issue of freebies?
The recent debate sparked by the Prime Minister’s comments on what he termed “revdi culture” has reignited the significance of the above two questions. Let me first address the second question.
Promises made by the political parties, often driven by short-term electoral calculations, can be divided into two types: Promises made before the elections are announced and those made after. These promises are made by both the ruling and Opposition parties, with the ruling party having a distinct advantage as they control the treasury. They are also in a rush to make such promises before the EC plays spoilsport with its much-dreaded model code of conduct.
The second type of promise is the one made through manifestos after the elections have been announced. The government cannot announce new schemes after the declaration of poll dates because of the model code of conduct. The promises made in the manifestos, however, do not attract the model code. This is also why the EC has no powers to question the manifestos as they are perfectly legal, however infeasible their promises may seem.
Even the SC, in its judgment dated July 5, 2013, accepted that the promises in manifestos cannot be construed as “corrupt practice” under the RP Act. However, it conceded that 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 manifestos in consultation with all the recognised political parties. In their meeting with the Election Commission, angry political parties argued that in a healthy democratic polity it is their “right and duty” towards the voters to make promises to them through their manifestos. Agreeing with this in principle, the EC, however, underlined its “undesirable impact”.
In my opinion, neither the EC nor the SC can get involved in this perfectly legal and legitimate democratic instrument. Even if the promises are unrealistic or absurd, it is for the rival parties and the media to expose them. And the voters do remember which promises have been fulfilled and which have not been. They are now seen constantly rewarding good performance and punishing non-delivery.
Moreover, as matters of economic policy lie in the hands of elected representatives, neither the EC nor the SC must intervene in the purely political domain of the legislature. It is ultimately for the voter to judge the economic and fiscal implications of freebie policies.
We must now turn to the first question: Welfarism vs freebies. The PM’s remark about “revdi culture” is indeed surprising as it strikes at the legitimacy of welfarism itself, particularly state-led welfarism, as a suitable model of development in which his government has done enormous work.
Oxfam’s 2022 annual report on inequality in India has many troubling, stark revelations. The number of poor doubled to 134 million as its dollar billionaires’ wealth doubled. The richest 1 per cent have amassed 51.5 per cent of the total wealth while the bottom 60 per cent of the population a mere 5 per cent. All of these indications clearly suggest a picture of a nation that is more fractious and unequal.
Critics have pointed out that provisions to poor beneficiaries are termed as “revdi” while state-sponsored support to the rich is called “incentive”. In September 2019, the government slashed corporate tax rates for domestic companies from 30 per cent to 22 per cent, and for new manufacturing companies from 25 per cent to 15 per cent. The government took just 36 hours to implement this decision. The Oxfam report has stated that these corporate cuts resulted in a loss of 1.5 lakh crore.
The report further highlighted that the government managed to compensate for the shortfall in direct taxes (income tax, corporate tax and capital gains tax) by increasing indirect taxes (goods and services tax, excise and customs duty) during the pandemic. This directly led to a rise in fuel prices impacting the prices of essential commodities such as foodgrain, which only impact the poor.
These policies are the main reason that helped make the rich richer, while the national minimum wage has remained at Rs 178 a day since 2020. Reduced federal funding to local administrations amidst growing privatisation in the health and education sectors has further boosted inequalities. Meanwhile, our nation is home to a quarter of the world’s undernourished people, according to the World Food Programme.
Given this overall socio-economic context, it is important that we reaffirm the value and necessity of our welfare programmes, and the urgent need to expand them. Providing its citizens with food, education and employment is the most fundamental responsibility of a democratic state.
The so-called “freebie” promises like cheap foodgrains and free items of utility have actually done considerable good to further the dream of democracy. Starvation deaths haven’t occurred since Rs 1-2 kg rice was introduced. The distribution of bicycles had improved enrollment and retention of girls in schools in Bihar. Employment guarantee schemes have brought visible relief to the rural poor.
Finally, I firmly believe that our nation would become a greater democracy if we redirect our concerned attention from “revdi” and “freebies” to rights and freedoms.
The writer is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and the author of An Undocumented Wonder — The Making of the Great Indian Elections