Thursday, June 8, 2023
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Freebies: make Law to prevent economic disaster
Straight Talk

K B Jandial

Giving damn topoor economic conditions and limited financial resources, most of the political parties in India are promising electors an attractive package of freebies in pursuit to power in States. This political model is craftily designed to grab power based on promises offreebies that would be funded by the public exchequer.It is the politics built on the ‘sand of future fiscal bankruptcy’ as some economists call it. State finances and economy are already in bad shape mainly due to Covid pandemic but it didn’t prevent political parties from promising free electricity, free water, cash to women, waiver of loans, huge subsidies and what not. Gullible electors, majority of them are poor, lower & middle class, fall prey to it andelect a party to power on these promises, making the model successful.
Recent landslide victory of AAP in Punjab has unleashed a freebies spree, forcing other parties to re-plan their electoral strategies. A debate has been re-generated on financial viability of this model which is catching up the minds of the lower and middle class. After all, why should anyone say ‘no’ to incoming ‘largesses’?R. Jagannathan, Editor of Swarajya says that “India’s one of the tragedies, that a hyper-competitive, first-past-the-post populist democracy has helped bad economic ideas gain faster traction than the good ones.” Yes, if one partyoffersfreebies and if it leads electoral success; soon it becomes a national obsession. Not many would care to realise that Freebie culture would derail India's democracy sooner than later. N. K. Singh, the Chairman of the 15th Finance Commission has warned about the race to provide freebiessaying that it could be a "quick path to fiscal disaster”. It is harmful for the long term economic growth of the country.
Freebies are doles or gifts promised to a section of the population to win election. Promises or expenditures under the populist pressure to hoodwink the voters with election in mind are always a questionable proposition as compared to increase in expenditure on social welfare activities. There is absolutely no justification for giving free electricity to the middle class or urban population who are regular income earners.
While Kejriwal is targeted for marketing his ‘Freebies” model in Delhi, now in Punjab and hoping torepeat it in Himachal this yearend, BJP too is not far behind on this account. In any case, Kejriwal is not the author of Freebie model asits birth took place long back in Tamil Nadu, launched by Karunanidhi, perfected by Jayalalithaa, and persisted by OPS. The political freebie culture has saddled Tamil Nadu with debt reaching the whooping Rs. 5.70 lakh crore by March 2022. It was hardly Rs. 57457 crore in 2006. But Karunanidhiushered in a new electoral culture starting from free colour TV, rice at Rs 2 per kg, two acres of land for the landless, free gas, Rs 1,000 maternity assistance to poor women for six months, free power to weavers etc. Since then there was no end to it. Jayalalithaawent a step forward ordered waiver of all farm loans, free mobile phones for all ration card holders, free electricity up to 100 units to every household, Rs 5,000 to poor fishermen and eight grams of gold as marriage assistance. The leaders spent a big chunk of revenue either through taxpayers’ money or through debt to finance these schemes. Then, Akhilesh Yadav doled out free bicycles and laptops to students in UP. Yogi too launched Yogi Free Cycle SahaytaYojanafor workers.
While PM Modi’s personal appeal, by and large, transcends the politics of freebies, the politics of freebiescontinued in even in BJP ruled States. In election bound H.P, BJP too has started offering freebies like free electricity to a certain level to compete with AAP.Freebies are open bribery to voters and every major political party is the culprits. The money the political parties promise to spend on freebies is not of the political parties but of taxpayers who do not contribute it for such freebies. Whatever may be the electoral gains;these freebies have no justification and areturning it in to a competitive bidding by every political party. The mechanism and strategy to mop up resources to fund suchfreebiesis missing in manifestos and as such theseburden the financial resources of the State.
Moreover, announcing freebies in pre-election competitive political strategy to grab power iswithout legislative debate and approval that ends up in irresponsible expenditure.Welfare schemes in the form of power and water bill waivers could be justified if it were to help the poor. A recent example comes from Punjab where AAP has been recently elected to the power on promise of freebies. Immediately after becoming Punjab CM,Bhagwant Singh Maan met PM Modi and demanded special funds for the State, presumably to fund freebies announced before elections. Not hopeful of help, Punjab’sAAP Govt has reportedly borrowed Rs 7000 cr in April as alleged by the State Congress PCC chief and if borrowing continued despite lingering Rs 3 lakh crore debts, Punjab would soon face financial emergency.

While a nation-wide debate continues on financial viability of freebies and populist schemes announced by political parties vying for power, a PILis pending before the Apex Court seeking direction to the Election Commission of India (ECI) to seize the election symbol or deregister a political party that promises or distributes “irrational freebies” from public funds before elections.The ECI hasinformed the Supreme Court that neither it is within its powers to stop it nor it can regulate state policies and decisionswhich have to be taken by the ruling party when it forms the government.The petition argued that the recent trend of political parties to influence voters by offering freebies with an eye on elections is not only the greatest threat to the survival of democratic values but also violates the spirit of the Constitution.Political parties are promising all sorts of freebies to secure the votes. It argued that promises of irrational freebies violate the ECI's mandate for free and fair elections and make a condition for recognition as a state party, that a "political party shall not promise/distribute irrational freebies from the public fund before the election".The petition also sought a direction to the Union Govt to enact a law in this regard.The petitioner urged the top court to direct and declare that such promise or distribution is analogous to bribery and undue influence under the Indian Penal Code.
The EC’s affidavit referred to the SC’s 2013 ruling in the S SubramaniamBalajivs Government of Tamil Nadu and others case, wherein it was said that a promise contained in an election manifesto cannot in itself constitute a bribe or corrupt practice as per Section 123 of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951.The apex court had in that case also said that the ECI can intervene only where there is no express legislation covering the subject matter and asked it to frame guidelines governing the contents of the manifesto, as it noted that there is no enactment covering this. The court had also recognised that the ECI’s authority to regulate such matters commenced only upon the announcement of elections and the enforcement of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).

The Commission said that it had accordingly, after consultation with recognised political parties, “issued guidelines, incorporated as Part VIII of the MCC, to be adhered to by the political parties and candidates while releasing their election manifesto…”

The ECI stated that although promises in a manifesto are not enforceable under election law, it had on December 27, 2016 advised all recognised political parties to submit a declaration along with copies of manifestos to see that the promises made therein are in consonance with Part VIII of the MCC.

The petitioner had also sought a direction to the Commission to insert an additional condition that “political party shall not promise/distribute irrational freebies from the public fund before election” in paras 6A, 6B and 6C of the Election Symbols Order, 1968, dealing with the recognition of state parties, recognition of national parties and continued recognition of such state and national parties respectively.

On this, the ECI said “provisions grant continuation of such recognition on only one touchstone — electoral performance” and “an addition of another condition, i.e., barring political parties from promising / distributing freebies from public fund before election…may result in a situation where the parties will lose their recognition even before they display their performance in the elections”.This will “defeat the very purpose of these provisions”, the poll panel stated.

On prayer that ECI be directed to seize election symbol/deregister the political party which promises/distributes irrational freebies from public fund, the affidavit said the SC has in the past ordered that the Commission has no power to cancel registration of a political party, except on three grounds which does not include promise or distribution of freebies.

The EC in its response said that the court had held that its plenary powers under Article 324 of the Constitution with regard to conduct of elections “can be exercised only in areas left unoccupied by legislation”. The poll body “is bound to comply with existing statutory enactments including Appropriation Acts” and that “it is therefore clear that” it “may only regulate the manner of disbursal of cash subsidies to ensure that it does not skew the level playing field in any election”.

While admittedly the ECI has no power under existing laws to take cognizance of freebies in manifestos or otherwise before election, Modi Govt should get a law enacted to prevent impending economic disaster to the country like seen in Sri Lanka. While other Govts may dilly dally this issue but PM Modi is the only leader who has courage to come up with path breaking electoral reforms to cleanse the system from freebies culture to win elections. The political parties, pretending to be concerned for the poor,are, in fact, indulging in financial mismanagement having no roadmap to tap resources to fund such freebies, if elected to power.

(The author is retired IAS[email protected])

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