Election Freebies: The good, the bad and the ugly

All parties are promising handouts in the name of guarantees. The freebies can be sorted between those desperately needed and those not desirable for the country
Election Freebies: The good, the bad and the ugly
Express illustrations | Sourav Roy

The summer is a fiery one, in more ways than one. An election is on in India. The first phase of polling is done. Claims and counter-claims as to who is winning are on. Television news is having a heyday, polarised between the two formations of the NDA on one side and the INDIA coalition on the other.

The gloves are off. No subterfuge anymore. The masks are off as well. You watch the channel you belong to. Or must I say the political formation you support? What is said on television news is believed by the believer (who already believes) to be gospel truth. Just as there are two coalitions at loggerheads with one another in this election, there are two formations of media channels, newspapers, digital news offerings, influencers, comedians, film stars, cricketers, WhatsApp groups, and even people at cocktail parties. All divided.

While many media outfits have already pronounced the winner, the truth however remains that all this is maya created by each of the contending formations. Each saying the win is theirs. Everything is but an assumption. The truth for 102 constituencies is already locked in EVMs kept safely away from the hustle and bustle of the election. The balance 441 are waiting to be filled with the uncommon mandate of the common man. The mandate of the electorate will be known on June 4, 2024, when counting begins and concludes. Till then, the truth is that no one knows who will form the new government in New Delhi ahead. An election is not done till the counting is done. From all my pre-election travel in India, this election is surely not a boring one. It is an exciting one instead. It’s not done. Not yet.

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In the run-up to this election, every party has put forth an election manifesto. A statement of intent, and a statement packed with promises. A manifesto in many ways is a promissory note, if not a promissory document. Every party has done its bit. While many pack their manifesto with “intent”, “promise” and “guarantee”, it is important to appreciate the trend across all parties that seem to polarise their manifesto to the extreme end of these three, hinging on the “guarantee”. While intent is a statement of direction, a promise is that much more specific and rigid (hinged on a give and take policy), and the guarantee is a freebie for sure.

The manifesto market has therefore gone through a redux. Every party has decided to go the freebie way. It is a  freebie packaged to look that much more dignified with  the outer-garment word, ‘guarantee’.

I have just finished reading and analysing the manifesto document of six  political parties that are in the fray for general elections 2024. I must say that I am convinced that the freebie is all around in plenty. But then, there are many kinds of freebies. For the sake of this column, I have put them into four buckets. The first freebie I see is the need-based freebie. And then there is the want-based, the desire-based and the aspiration-based.

The moment I use the word freebie, does it mean that all freebies are bad? Are all guarantees bad? Not really. In my segmentation of guarantees, there is the good, the bad and the ugly. And maybe a few “very ugly”, even. Let me explain.

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The good guarantee is the need-based freebie. India is a land of the poor (even though we seldom acknowledge it in the midst of all the personal prosperity we experience and what we see in popular media) and the impoverished. Let’s remember, despite the best efforts of the government over the last 15 years, we still have as many as 3.44 crore people who live in extreme poverty. To these, food and education are items deprived. The good guarantee and the good freebie is therefore one that promises food every day and education for the children of these deprived classes, to aim for betterment. This is what I would call the “need-based freebie”. Free “dal, cheeni (sugar), chaawal (rice) and  atta (flour)” to the deprived, all fall in this category.

The bad guarantee, then, is the one that caters to the greed of those who live above the poverty line in India. When I have everything that sustains my daily life, I still want more. I look forward to election time and look forward to the new mixer-grinder to replace my old one, the LCD television set to upgrade from the old one, and items of this type. I call this the “want-based freebie”. People have wants. They always will. Let them cater to their wants based on  hard work. Why offer a freebie to this category of people at all? This surely is the bad freebie. The bad guarantee. The key point: the intent behind this guarantee is questionable.

The ugly guarantee is one that promises a dole of sorts. Many of these are ‘desire-based freebies’. A dole for the unemployed for instance. Why must this even be attempted? A dole offered to the hale and hearty young folk of India typically kills the animal spirit of working for a living. An ugly freebie is easy to spot in a manifesto. You just need to look. And protest. A desire-based freebie is best discouraged, if not denied altogether.

My final categorisation of the apogee-freebie is the “aspiration-based freebie”. What is this now? All of us have aspirations. This aspiration is for ourselves, our families, our communities, our state and indeed our country and the planet at large. This I do believe is the most benign of all freebies to offer. If your party manifesto offers an agenda for clean air, clean water and clean everything (corruption included), it sure is a benign one. This is a super-good freebie. A manifesto that aspires to create a pollution-free tomorrow is a good one to back. Does a manifesto offer you a game plan to progress on all counts social, economic, political and religious for the common benefit of all? This is a good plan.

The net of it, after having immersed hours into reading the political party manifesto of every colour, I do believe we must offer the guarantee and freebie in India. The good ones to offer are the need-based freebies and the aspiration-based freebies. Let’s avoid and shun the want-based and desire-based avatars of the guarantees altogether.

A point to make as an end point. The freebie is in the election manifesto as a promise, and the freebie is on the ground as well as an inducement to vote. We need to be watchful.

May I then urge each one of us to look deeper and wider into the political party manifesto and decide for yourself which is the good freebie, which the bad and which the ugly?

Harish Bijoor

Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults

(Views are personal)


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