Context: The Supreme Court has taken a decision to form a body of stakeholders to examine ‘the distribution or promise of ‘freebies’ ahead of elections’ issue. But this move raises the question of whether the legislature can be bypassed on such a far-reaching exercise.
- The Court is not going to issue guidelines, but only ensure that suggestions are taken from stakeholders such as the NITI Aayog, Finance Commission, Law Commission, RBI and political parties. All these institutions can submit a report to the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Government.
- A suggestion that Parliament could discuss this issue was met with scepticism by the Bench, which felt that no party would want a debate on this, as all of them support such sops.
- The Bench also disfavoured the ECI preparing a ‘model manifesto’ as it would be an empty formality.
The Court’s concern over populist measures seems to resonate with the Government too, as the Solicitor-General submitted that these distorted the voter’s informed decision-making; and that unregulated populism may lead to an economic disaster.
- Subramaniam Balaji vs Government of Tamil Nadu (2013)
- The Supreme Court addressed these questions and took the position that these concerned law and policy.
- Upheld the distribution of television sets or consumer goods on the ground that schemes targeted at women, farmers and the poorer sections were in furtherance of Directive Principles; and as long as public funds were spent based on appropriations cleared by the legislature, they could neither be declared illegal, nor the promise of such items be termed a ‘corrupt practice’.
- It had, however, directed the ECI to frame guidelines to regulate the content of manifestos.
- The ECI subsequently included in its Model Code of Conduct a stipulation that parties should avoid promises “that vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters”.
- It added that only promises which were possible to be fulfilled should be made and that manifestos should contain the rationale for a promised welfare measure and indicate the means of funding it.
- Any further step, such as distinguishing welfare measures from populist sops and pre-election inducements, or adding to the obligations of fiscal responsibility and fiscal prudence ought to come from the legislature.
What are the criticisms of Freebie Culture?
- Creates Private Benefits: Freebies violate the constitutional mandate of extending benefits for public purpose and instead create private benefits. The main beneficiaries of the freebies provided by government were the ruling party’s core supporters and swing voters who could be influenced easily.
- Depoliticises Poor: Freebies will not only depoliticise the poor and marginalised communities but also indirectly deny them their due share of state resources.
- Erases Rational Thinking: Freebie encourage personality cults in a democratic polity. Populism encourages mediocre political critics and erases critical and rational thinking, which are important to raise questions to people in power.
- Patron-Client Syndrome: Unsolicited freebies cultivate a patron-client syndrome. Providing freebies is to treat people like subjects, whereas citizens are entitled to constitutional guarantees.
- Clientelism is a political or social system based on the relation of client to patron with the client giving political support to a patron (as in the form of votes) in exchange for some special privilege or benefit (freebies).
- Against Welfare Politics: Welfare initiatives are an embodiment of civil rights, whereas unsolicited freebies show benevolence at best and apathy at worst towards the poor by the ruling parties.
- Doesn’t enhance Productivity: It was observed that distributing free laptops does not serve the purpose of increasing the quality of education. Also, free electricity, free water, farm loan waivers, etc. have not contributed to increased productivity.
- Fiscal Burden: Freebies imposes burden on the state’s financial status contributing to huge fiscal debt.
- Vulnerable to Corruption: Freebies culture paves way to corrupt practice because of the involvement of middle man.
- Not Sustainable in Long Run: The social, political and economic consequences of freebies are very short-lived in nature. Also, they cannot be provided free forever, at some point these goods have to be rationalised.
Source: The Hindu