- Login | Register
- Current Issue
- Most Read
- Back Issues
As India preps for the hurly-burly of a big election for the 16th Lok Sabha, only one unstoppable force has emerged so far with cross-country clout—and that is the political habit of offering ‘sops’ to voters. Leading the charge, of course, is the embattled UPA, which is handing out goodies right, left and centre. It recently constituted the Seventh Central Pay Commission, gave the prosperous Jain community minority status, and (with a push from Rahul Gandhi) increased the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders. Amazingly, it even suspended linking the LPG cylinder subsidy to the UPA’s pet UID project so that the benefits ‘reach’ the people.
Typically, handing out sops and serving up big promises is par for the course before an election. And it’s not just the UPA doling out freebies. This is happening across the country—from Tamil Nadu to Uttar Pradesh, from West Bengal to Kerala—and across the political and ideological spectrum.
“Such steps are disgraceful,” says economist S.L. Rao. “They should not be indulged in. Now the state budgets will have less and less money for roads, health, education, women and health.” Actually, fiscal purists may complain till kingdom come, but even they shrug their shoulders in the home stretch to an election. Now the Election Commission has also stepped in, asking national political parties to respond to a new idea—linking their election manifestos with the Model Code of Conduct.
“The commission has said that if a party is spending money, it will have to show where the money is coming from. If an expense is undertaken, how a party proposes to fund the measure is equally important,” says an EC official. The manifesto, however, is not a binding commitment. Nor do parties wait for it before announcing freebies. “What’s more, in West Bengal parties we found that most party workers themselves had not read their manifesto,” says Biplab Halim, convenor at the West Bengal Social Watch, a network of NGOs that tracks elections and governance.
The SC, while expressing reservations on freebies, did not define one, leaving the field wide open for political parties.
But who needs the fine print, when even poor Uttar Pradesh residents are on the mega-sop bandwagon, quite a change. This will be the first time some of the state’s deprived sections will get the benefits their Samajwadi Party CM, Akhilesh Yadav, is in a position to give them. During its wobbly two-year term, the party reeled under riots and crimes, but now it has promised a hike in the ‘honorarium’ of teachers in aided madrassas. Lately, the state weaned 1,70,000 rural teachers from contractual to regular employment. More offers surface daily, catering to every possible section.
But better-off states such as Tamil Nadu are in a league of their own. Mixies, cows, goats and gold—everything under the sun was promised during the 2006 and 2011 Tamil Nadu assembly polls. The sops were widely criticised—by everyone except by their beneficiaries, of course. And so chief minister J. Jayalalitha has once again promised Rs 10,000 to each girl born on February 24—her own birthday—since 2012. New welfare measures with a wide sweep, from more laptops to 66,000 coconut saplings, are in the works. This, after the state appealed to the 14th Finance Commission for Rs 41,000 crore to modernise its administration, police and infrastructure.
In Madhya Pradesh, CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan has thrown in a Madhyam Varg Aayog (middle class commission) along with night shelters for the homeless and assurances of land titles to small plots occupied by the poor. His moves are unsurprising, election watchers say, considering he delivers rice at Rs 1 a kilo to poor families, as promised before he rode to a third victory.
Every party is beating the sop drumbeat but the din from Maharashtra is the loudest. Here, the Congress has slashed power tariffs by 15-20 per cent, taking on a Rs 606 crore monthly burden. (Soon after, the state announced it will prune some social sector subsidies.) “Maharashtra and Sanjay Nirupam are behaving rather like the anarchic Arvind Kejriwal in Delhi,” says Rao. “Don’t they know power companies spend hundreds of crores to subsidise small consumers? We’re headed for (financial) disaster this poll season.”
“Every party raises the threshold of freebies, others try to beat it.... The state has to provide equal opportunity, not luxury items.”
To try and get parties to engage in ‘welfarism’ through their term rather than timing ‘freebies’ with elections, the EC has asked parties to respond to a recent Supreme Court order that is critical of freebies. “Distribution of freebies of any kind undoubtedly influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree,” the ruling says. The impact, however, will be minimal—the EC has been asked to frame guidelines, which it has, and parties have stressed their right to offer basic services. Besides, the SC did not define what it meant by ‘freebie’, leaving the field open.
How far household products or cash prod voters in favour of their benefactor is doubtful. “Every party raises the threshold of freebies, and others try to beat the offers. That’s what’s been happening since the last two elections,” says S. Subramaniam Balaji, a Chennai lawyer and BJP legal cell member who complained to the EC about parties offering free houses, fridges or washing machines. Balaji classifies them as bribes. “They are against the Constitution,” he says. “The state has to provide equal opportunities, not luxury products.”
Others argue that timing is of the essence. “It’s very, very wrong for parties to offer sops right on the eve of elections. Why do they wait? All of it is a bribe—and it should be treated as a bribe,” says K.J. Rao, general secretary, Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections. He, however, draws a distinction between freebies and essentials—“A colour TV may not be essential to anyone, but a party assuring new roads, bridges and power—that’s a different matter,” he says.
Prof Trilochan Shastri, chairman, Association for Democratic Reform (ADR), says that though the EC’s guidelines are not enforceable, they may be of significance if there is a greater public voice against freebies in particular. “In the past, politicians didn’t promise free rice for votes. Voters were exhorted to give something to the country. What we see now is a parody of that principle: people expect something in exchange for votes,” he says.
In fact, there is a partial exception in this round of elections. Andhra Pradesh appears a mite isolated from the sop festival, with the formation of Telangana dominating the agenda. CM Kiran Kumar Reddy has spoken of existing welfare schemes. However, Reddy’s “pro-poor performance” is strongly challenged by rival offers, including from the YSR Congress. Its chief Jaganmohan Reddy says he will bring in a market stabilisation fund to regulate support prices, give free power for at least seven hours to farms, and close illegal liquor shops. TRS chief K. Chandrasekhara Rao also assures small and landless farmers two acres of land and (Telangana) government salaries on par with central government salaries.
Indeed, considering the across-the-board silence on tax exemptions to the wealthy, most parties say there’s no harm in giving a few odd grammes of gold or a cow or goat to the voter. Everyone expects—nay, demands—this harmless sideshow to the greatest elections on earth.
By Pragya Singh with Outlook bureaus