Pre-poll freebies and public funding of private political interests - The New Indian Express

Pre-poll freebies and public funding of private political interests

Published: 07th July 2013 07:20 AM

Last Updated: 21st January 2014 01:14 PM

The tussle in the tent, in democracies across the world, is about maintaining the balance between individual rights and interests of the community. In India, the tussle is increasingly about preservation of individual interests of political leaders and less about the rights of Indians. 

This has been most visible under the Congress-led UPA since 2004 and in states which are ruled like principalities by regional family-run parties. Governments are obliged to prioritise investment in social public goods for a sustainable growth (of the individual and the nation) over the political enthusiasm to create private income. In stark contrast, the UPA in the name of inclusive growth has rolled out programmes to appease sections while neglecting the greater common good. Typically, such outlays are timed to derive electoral outcomes—whether it is the loan-waiver of 2008 before the 2009 polls or the Food Security Ordinance in the run-up to the 201-whenever.

On Friday, the Supreme Court disposed a petition which argued that the announcement of pre-poll freebies like free laptops, mixers, grinders, television sets—specifically by the DMK first and then by the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu—is tantamount to bribery, is violative of Article 14, defies the definition of ‘public purpose’ and is a corrupt electoral practice. The petitioner, S Subramaniam Balaji, sought an end to this practice and necessary guidelines from the apex court.

The matrix governing kosher-politics is rather unique. Legality supersedes propriety. Ergo, if an individual candidate makes promises to influence voters s/he can be hauled up for ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act. The same, however, does not apply to a party if it presents a parade of pre-poll sops and freebies to the voters. The RP Act is silent about promises made by parties. Parties argue that promises are implemented only when schemes are passed by an elected legislature and hence legit.

Balaji’s plea, in itself, is ambitious in a country where the first amendment to the Constitution circumscribes freedom of expression and right to own property to the diktat of ‘public interest’ and ‘public purpose’ prescribed by the state. Be that as it may, a bench led by Chief Justice P Sathasivam saw reason to intervene. It observed 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 Supreme Court directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines on the contents of the election manifesto.

Sure, the principle of propriety has been inducted into the legal landscape. There is reason for hope but don’t hold your breath yet. After all in India, laws/guidelines are simply intelligently arranged words that are dead on arrival and await institutional leadership. The clause of ‘corrupt practices’ came into the RP Act in 1956 but it had to wait till the 1990s for a Seshan to implement it. And what all will the Election Commission codify? Electoral victory is not defined by majority share anymore. Mandates are determined by decimals—159 MPs get elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009 polling less than 20 per cent of the total votes of the constituencies.

In this age of derivative politics, parties target niche segments for market share and devise policies to maximise electoral dividends. In major metros—Mumbai for instance, where it costs lakhs to buy a toilet with a room attached—parties promise regularisation of illegal slums for votes. Quotas have a fixed place in most campaigns. And what about something like the Food Security Ordinance—which does little for the poorest of the poor, which every party has problems with, which no party will oppose? Fact is, freebie fashion is an all-party fad. In 1925, Lord Atkinson said, most memorably, governments should not allow “themselves to be guided in preference by some eccentric principles of socialistic philanthropy”. But India’s politics is embedded in mushy notions of socialism. Outlays—rather, promises—attract voters and are fixed with scant regard to performance. The real tragedy, of course, is that electors don’t vote on outcomes and therefore outcome does not figure in the electoral cost-benefit analysis of political parties.

It is not surprising that, frequently, governments in India function like private charitable trusts managing donations. Politics which was a national mission post-Independence became a profession by the Seventies, and by the time Rajiv Gandhi made his famous power-broker speech in Bombay, it had become a business. In the new millennium, it has morphed into the CSR arm of business that must be sustained to preserve business. Ergo, governance has the faux air of philanthropy and politicians dress doles as policy. Except this is hardly charity. It is public funding of private political ambitions.

The only voice heard against the freebie fad is that of the middle class. India’s taxpaying middle class is politically stranded—between the high-end which funds the business model of politics to extract rent and the other end, where there are those trapped in a grid of sops and freebies. Deliverance depends on how well the middle class makes its presence felt, how successfully it advocates the cause of free will and free markets, and how sensibly it votes.

Shankkar Aiyar is the author of  Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change

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