The Supreme Court, while hearing a petition against political parties promising freebies, has rightly expressed concern over the practice and issued notices to the Centre and the Election Commission. The petitioner has correctly pointed out that irrational freebies have played havoc with state finances. Coming to the election-bound states, UP’s public debt is Rs 6.1 lakh crore, Punjab’s Rs 2.8 lakh crore, Uttarakhand’s Rs 68,000 crore and Goa’s Rs 18,844 crore. A recent RBI report said the outstanding liabilities of states had increased from Rs 16.48 lakh crore in 2011 to Rs 42.92 lakh crore in 2019. Other than running up huge debts, a telling example of how freebies can change a state’s expenditure pattern is provided by Delhi.
The AAP government’s capital expenditure, incurred to create and expand productive assets, infrastructure and public amenities in the national capital, has fallen from Rs 11,685 crore in 2013–14 to Rs 7,173 crore in 2017–18. The CAG had pointed out that the share of capital expenditure has reduced from 14.39% in 2013–14 to 8.26% in 2017–18. All this is merely because the AAP government has to finance its election promises of free power, water and public bus service for women.
The situation is likely to worsen because the tendency to make such promises has only increased with each election. All political parties in the states currently witnessing elections have promised freebies: Among them are free power, Rs 1,000–2,000 to women aged 18 or more, unemployment allowance, smartphones and scooties to girls pursuing college. During the West Bengal election last year, the Trinamool promised free medical insurance cover to all and a monthly allowance of Rs 500–1,000 to homemakers.
According to election analysts, both played a key role in securing Mamata Banerjee a third successive term, that too with a bigger majority. But winning elections is one thing, governance is another. This unhealthy, unviable and regressive trend needs to be checked before all states collapse under the weight of the promises of political parties.