A recent Tamil feature film, Sarkar, contained scenes that criticised the culture of freebies. This triggered such strong opposition from the ruling party that the producer was forced to cut those scenes and re-release the film. This episode highlights the pivotal position that freebies have come to play.
It all started with the late M G Ramachandran (MGR) distributing free dhotis and sarees and each election saw an increase in the value of freebies. Before that, many states had been driven to financial ruin by the promise of free power to farmers. The quantum leap in the freebies’ culture was in 2006 when the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) promised a free colour TV to each and every household which did not possess it. There were no guidelines regarding income or eligibility. Not surprisingly, the DMK defeated Jayalalithaa’s AIADMK in the assembly elections.
The 2011 election was her turn to outdo the DMK and her manifesto promised freebies worth a staggering Rs 9,000 crore: 9 lakh laptops to all Plus Two students costing Rs 912 crore; 25 lakh free mixers, grinders and table-fans costing Rs 1,250 crore; 4 grams of gold plus Rs 50,000 cash to poor girls at the time of their wedding amounting to Rs 14 crore; 60,000 green houses to poor farmers at a cost of Rs 1.8 lakh per house amounting to Rs 1,080 crore; free rice to 1.83 crore families for Rs 4,500 crore; and free cows and goats to poor families in selected rural areas for Rs 56 crore.
No prizes for guessing who won. Thereafter, the attempt of each party to outdo the other has become a vicious form of competitive populism which, if unchecked, will lead to financial ruin.
The distribution of freebies was unsuccessfully challenged before the Madras High Court and before the Supreme Court in Subramaniam Balaji v State of Tamil Nadu (2013). It was argued that the distribution of freebies was not only unconstitutional but also violative of Section 123 of the Representation of People Act, 1951 which defined “bribery” to include any gift, offer or promise by a candidate or his election agent or by any other person that has the effect of inducing a voter to vote for him.
Undoubtedly, such freebies are gifts that have no other purpose than to induce voters to vote for a particular party. The Supreme Court rejected this contention on the ground that Section 123 applied only to a candidate and not to a political party. Consequently, gifts made by a political party would not amount to a bribe and a corrupt practice. This reasoning is incorrect. If an independent candidate in a constituency promises a free colour TV or a laptop to voters in his constituency (a wealthy candidate may well be able to afford it), it would be a corrupt practice. But if the candidate of a political party in the same constituency promises the same gift, it would not be so because that promise was not made by him but the inducement had come from his party!
It was also argued that the distribution of freebies was unconstitutional because Article 282 mandates that the Centre and state government can expend money only for “public purposes”. In the United States, the courts have ruled that public funds cannot be used to create private assets. If you have to promise free computers, it is open to a political party to promise computers or laptops to be given to public schools to be used by poor students. This would remain the asset of that school and would not be given to individual students. Thus, there is no bar on promises that create community assets as part of an election manifesto but no political party can use public funds and distribute them as private assets to individuals. The Supreme Court did not refer to any of these decisions on the ground that the distribution of freebies was a policy decision and these welfare measures were in compliance with the Directive Principles.
But can there be any justification for the policy decision to distribute mixers, grinders and fans? The Supreme Court rejected all arguments on the ground that these schemes were administered through district collectors and there were sufficient checks because government expenditure was subjected to audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
But even more surprising were the court’s concluding remarks. After upholding the distribution of freebies and accepting the absurd justifications made by the state, the Supreme Court observed that although freebies did not amount to a corrupt practice under Section 123, “the reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”. The Election Commission, through its counsel, also conveyed the same view in its affidavit and expressed the view that the promise of freebies disturbed the level playing field and vitiated the electoral process. It expressed its willingness to implement any directions of the Supreme Court in this regard. But the Supreme Court missed this golden opportunity and merely observed that the Election Commission “should consult all political parties and issue suitable directions in this behalf”.
It was clear that the Election Commission was hesitant to take a decision and no political party would agree to discontinue the practice of promising freebies. It just required a nudge from the Supreme Court to ban them. When directions can be issued to ban diesel vehicles or direct the BCCI to be reconstituted, there was no justification not to issue directions on freebies.
In the recent assembly elections, not a single party had any strategy or concrete plan to create more employment or improve the ease of doing business. The entire focus was to simply grant loan waivers and distribute as many articles free of cost as each party could imagine. When most political parties are unable to provide good governance, the only way to assuage frustrated voters is to promise them more and more freebies in each succeeding election. Without question, these freebies and loan waivers will eventually bankrupt state after state but that’s just a small price for the nation to pay to ensure “free and fair elections”.
It is, therefore, imperative that the Election Commission promptly issues guidelines banning consumer durables and expensive gifts as freebies for the forthcoming 2019 elections and all assembly elections.