The Supreme Court’s directive to the Election Commission to frame guidelines for regulating contents of election manifestos is a welcome move, particularly in the context of the inimical culture of freebies that political parties promise before every poll. As the apex court rightly observes, distributing free gifts, often unnecessary and secondary to more basic needs such as developing infrastructure and providing primary amenities such as education, food security, healthcare, pension funds etc, strikes at the very root of the ideal of free and fair elections. It is commendable that the bench of justices P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi pointed out that election manifestos should be brought under the ambit of the EC code of conduct, which could help curb the rampant practice of luring and buying voters dangling the carrots of free cellphones, laptops, television sets, gold-plated coins, and even food and shelter in case of people below poverty line. Distribution of free gifts is an unfair practice that lends ammunition of financial muscle to bigger parties, which score brownie points at the expense of parties that promise long-term structural changes. The petition filed by the Tamil Nadu advocate S Subramaniam Balaji sought to challenge the Tamil Nadu government’s strategy of showering goods that were promised to prospective voters and used for buying off vote-banks, in most instances, the freebies are announced without implementing and finishing the promises and claims made in the previous election manifestos.
The culture of competitive populism has been a bane for the Indian polity, with pandering to latent individualist consumerist desire replacing broad-based welfare schemes as election planks. Poll manifesto freebies should not be confused with passing important legislations such as the Food Security Bill that has been been passed as an ordinance, signed into law by the president. The brand of populism fans individual desires to have goods that could be availed if the life conditions are bettered and sustained livelihood and other assets and facilities are systematically put in place. Freebies perpetuate a culture of substituting temporary individual benefits with public goods and development of infrastructure, such as providing roads, water supply, sewerage and agricultural storage and marketing facilities, hospitals, clinics and other critical amenities. Providing long-term investments boost up the local economy, thus generating employment, thus lifting up the overall standard of living in backward and poorer regions. The political parties should not outplay each other in making empty promises, and instead should focus on implementing bigger welfare schemes such as subsidised food grains, housing, job allowance, health benefits, pensions etc. Poverty alleviation programmes do not mean vacuous gestures and insubstantial claims, but to take into accounts the actual need and wants of the people, who, in the pre-poll political parlance lose all significance for the politicians, but to cough up votes. Though, competitive populism might have a different side to it, if it is not without a vision aiming to bring out the most from abject poverty and generally improving the living conditions of everyone.