Fiscal prudence a must, differentiate between freebies, welfarism
It is time for political parties and the Election Commission to lay down basic guidelines to distinguish between a welfare scheme and an irrational freebie.
No political party would agree for curbs on freebies ahead of polls. Each of them wants it,” said former Chief Justice N V Ramana last year while hearing a case against ‘irrational freebies’. The matter concerns political parties engaging in competitive populism, raising questions about the State’s economic health, voter manipulation and the threat to free and fair elections. The former CJI rightly remarked that “the model code of conduct comes into force only a few days ahead of the elections. But political parties indulge in it for four years”. The election season is upon us. With five state elections and the Lok Sabha polls due in the next six months, parties vie with each other to woo the voters with free electricity and rations, direct money transfers, gas cylinders at reduced prices, etc. The Supreme Court has opined that a committee of experts should differentiate between freebies and welfare schemes.
Freebies are not new to Indian politics. It started in the Sixties in Tamil Nadu with then-CM Annadurai’s promise of rice at Rs 1 per Madras Measure (under a kilo). N T Rama Rao made a similar promise in Andhra Pradesh. Parties have previously offered rice, land, cash, sarees, bicycles, colour televisions and whatnot for votes. But a controversy erupted when the BJP objected to the AAP’s promise of free electricity to Gujarat voters before the last Assembly elections. The BJP argued that parties must be cautious about promises when the states are reeling under a deficit of lakhs of crores of rupees. The opposition pointed out that the same deficit never stopped the Central government from rolling out a massive free ration scheme for millions or transferring cash into farmers’ accounts. Amid such claims and counter-claims, the Congress went a step ahead by offering voters not one or two, but five and 10 guarantees in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, respectively, resulting in handsome electoral returns in both states.
Other parties are ready to emulate the Congress, and there is a no-holds-barred race to offer pre-poll sops. It is time for political parties and the Election Commission to lay down basic guidelines to distinguish between a welfare scheme and an irrational freebie. The handout culture to win votes must end. This would go a long way in improving the states’ fiscal health, nurturing healthy democracy and helping build a better India.