Despite SC’s direction and EC’s efforts, very little has been done to put a constraint on reckless poll promises in poll manifestos
Right from mixer grinder, milk cows to free jobs to free helicopter and a trip to the moon, the political parties in Tamil Nadu are in a rat race to get past each other in order to secure seats in assembly elections. They seem to overlook the financial cost of such exaggerated promises and the contrasting debt burden faced by the state. Parties have left no stone unturned to lure voters through freebies. The promise for helicopter, moon trip and snow mountain, however, came from an independent candidate whose stated motive is to aware people to not fall for reckless promises. The situation is, more or less, the same in other states also.
The manifestos of the political parties in the current phase of elections in the four states and one Union Territory must have been more intelligent and imaginative, aiming at the financial growth of the voters and their families and their enhanced contribution to the economic growth of the nation. Against the tall claims of being a five-trillion economy by 2025, money is spent recklessly on freebies. The promises of political parties are currently making no connection with labour and work productivity thus making the voters more lazy and unproductive. The increased labour burden in the agricultural sector is now realised as the direct result of freebies offered by the state governments. The regional parties started freebie culture to gain a foothold in the states where the national parties, especially the Congress was fully entrenched at all levels. The sectarian agenda of the regional parties that includes language, cultural pride and regional sentiment helped them to get the attention, and freebies were additional leverage for them to come into power. Having seen the power of freebies enjoyed by the regional parties, the national parties too followed in their footsteps.
The grand promise of Rahul Gandhi on behalf of the Congress party before the 2019 elections was a freebie offer of Rs 72,000 per annum to five crore poor families. That was in addition to other poverty alleviation schemes which Congress implemented for several decades during its rule.
A glance at those manifestos shows that the claims of ideological distinction by parties are not reflected in their draft vision as all of them have a commonality in attracting the voters through freebies. There seems to be no end to what these parties if voted to power, can offer for free. The freebies are taking care of the people from the 'maternity ward to the graveyard'. These promises are made in the full knowledge that freebies are a drag on the economy of the states and many states are victims of non-performance as their resources are drained for over-emphasised social welfare schemes. Surprisingly, a large number of freebies in the manifestos are not demanded by voters but innovated by parties.
An analysis of 17 manifestos made by EC in 2019 divided those innovative promises into six categories. These were some tangible asset promises such as land, houses to the poor, direct transfer of money, waiver of loans, subsidies on food, offering easy loans etc. Then, the EC suggested that 'the election manifestos shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution.
Tamil Nadu, the mother of freebies continues with its 1967 winning policy of DMK. It all started with 'a kilogram of rice for Rs two' promise, and in over five-decade-old Dravid party hegemony on the state, it was only competitive freebies that gave victory to either DMK or AIADMK. The ridiculous freebies include even the free neem twig to brush the teeth. Such freebies kept the power in the hands of Dravidian parties. Competitive populism is offering free houses, free electricity, household items like TVs, cable connection, mixers, and six gas cylinders in a year. Laptops and computers were given free earlier, now people are promised free internet. Education up to high school is free, for girls it is up to post-graduation. The books, uniforms, cycles are free and now comes the sanitary napkin as yet another free item.
This is all happening despite the Supreme Court direction to the Election Commission of India to frame guidelines for regulating the content of manifestos and their inclusion in the model code of conduct. This direction came after a PIL was filed regarding the lacunae of "freebies not amounting to corrupt practice" under the existing law. That the SC rightly felt that "freebies promised by the political parties in their election manifestos to lure voters shake the roots of free and fair polls. The judges P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi observed, "considering that there is no enactment that directly governs the content of the election manifesto, we hereby direct the EC to frame guidelines for the same in consultation with all the recognized political parties."
The Election Commission on its part did some homework by seeking the information from the ECs of over 100 countries and found out that very few of them had the framework for vetting the manifestos, and major democracies are without such procedure of scrutiny of manifestos. However, the EC did study the manifestos of the parties and found that promises made in these manifestos include items such as land, gold coins, cash, construction of houses etc. The EC further observed all those doles are aimed at targeting the groups of the electorate such as BPL families, weaker sections of the society, largely women and minorities.
The Congress party which was leading the UPA government then in 2013 objected to the SC intervention into the manifestos as they claimed that "making the promises is the birthright of the political parties and none can interfere in their political rights". Moreover, it was pointed out then that the 'election manifestos are released much before the code of conduct comes in to force', suggesting that it may be left to the political parties to be rational in their promises. The SC bench was cautious by saying that as the things stand, the poll promises can't be construed as corrupt practice under section 123 of the RP Act.
In 2013, BJP which welcomed the SC initiative came to power the next year but didn't initiate anything to put an end to the freebie culture. Instead, it joined other parties in offering freebies as we can see in their manifestos for Bengal and Assam.
Whatever may be the political parties' behaviour, it is clear that election promises of freebies without any connection with labour, work or productivity are certainly a drag on the nation's economy. Those who are receiving the freebies with a glee should realise that funds are not coming from the coffers of political parties but it is taxpayers' money that includes theirs too.
Views expressed are personal