Debate over the rampant culture of freebies in India is gaining traction. The Prime Minister kickstarted it, calling for an end to free “revdi(s)”, the Opposition parties objected to the manner in which the conversation is being framed, the RBI underlined the risk that power subsidies pose to state finances, and the Supreme Court has sought suggestions on the composition of a committee that can look into the issue. Various actors in India’s political and institutional landscape have begun to wade into a conversation that is critical, though not entirely new. It is especially warranted in this moment considering the acute fiscal stress at both the central and state levels. However, as matters of economic policy lie in the domain of the government, whose contours are shaped by the political representatives, legitimate questions are being raised over the judiciary’s intervention.
In this context, it is welcome and apt that the Election Commission has stated in its supplementary affidavit filed in the Supreme Court that it “may not be appropriate for the Commission, being the Constitutional Authority, to be part of the proposed committee.” The EC has done well to voice its reservations. As a neutral arbiter of elections, it will not be proper for it to wade into a contentious issue which pits the ruling dispensation at the Centre against the Opposition parties that govern states. There is also the equally controversial process of defining what constitutes “irrational freebies”, and what doesn’t. As the EC notes, “both ‘freebie’ and ‘irrational’ are subjective and open to interpretation.”
It is true that political parties, driven by short-term electoral calculations, often resort to fiscally profligate promises. It is also true that the fiscal risks at the state level are growing. But the allocation of public money is, at its core, a political decision. Suggestions proffered by experts can and should be taken on board. But the provision of free or highly subsidised goods and services in an attempt to either sway the electorate or to compensate for the lack of employment/income opportunities in a system that offers scarce safety nets for the vulnerable, is a decision to be taken, and questioned, in the political domain, by political representatives. Ultimately, the voters need to judge the economic and fiscal implications of such policies. While a wider conversation on this issue is needed, it needs to be located firmly in the political process.