Welfare state vs. poll promises: A complex question confronts the apex court (Opinion)

The democratic set-up we have in our country involves political parties/leaders to express and share their agendas to get elected to power, through their manifestos, social media handles, advertisements and public speeches.

The request to vote for such political parties/leaders involves giving a ray of hope to the voters and an array of reasons justifying their candidature and election. This is primarily done in view of our country being, constitutionally, a welfare state, where the ruling establishment is duty-bound to provide multiple facilities to the countrymates.

In the light of these electoral promises, the political leadership tends to guarantee certain things free of cost or as now popularly known as freebies. Few of these freebies can be rational. Many may not. What may constitute rational freebies is primarily essential services including education, health facilities, etc. These are permissible and rather essential.

Some may even say these cannot be termed as freebies at all. On the other hand, what may include irrational freebies is television sets, mixer-grinders, other electronic gadgets such as mobile phones and laptops, bicycles, etc. The list can never be exhaustive for obvious reasons.

It is these irrational freebies which are a cause of great concern and the doors of the top court have been approached to decide upon the issue.

In my view, irrational freebies must be deprecated in the strongest possible manner and strictly disallowed.

We have lately seen a trend by certain political parties and leaders where a number of irrational freebies are promised in order to attract attention and gain votes. Worse problem is where few of these irrational freebies are actually given to the public at large.

These irrational freebies derive existence from taxpayers’ money as the government primarily generates revenue through multiple direct and indirect taxation. No political party generates money to produce these free gifts but derives money to give these freebies from hard earned money of the public exchequer only.

Certain services such as health, education, water, sewage, electricity and transport that people cannot organise for themselves, being a welfare state, the ruling establishment should provide. If not for free, then at least at some subsidy as these are all welfare measures. That is why we elect governments.

How much of these services should be free depends on the government’s fiscal space and economic health. If the government’s (state or centre) expenditure-revenue situation is robust, then free services are most welcome. But the reality is, almost all the states are often short of cash. Even the central government has to work extremely hard to maintain the financial position.

Irrational freebies are an elitist construct that allows those in power exploit those who are not in power by promising to give them and themselves certain things (not essential services) for free by increasing the prices of other services for them.

The difference between an irrational freebie and an essential service is an evolving concept. It depends on the prevailing situation if giving away a particular service/item is an essential service at a particular point of time or is an irrational freebie at another time or location.

Similarly, both ‘irrational’ and ‘freebies’ are terms open to subjective interpretation and can have no precise legal definitions as they are not static either. During a natural disaster or a pandemic, providing life-saving medicines, food or funds may save lives but in regular times, they can be termed freebies.

The Directives Principles of State Policy in Part IV of the Constitution says the state government should promote the welfare of people who are Below the Poverty Line (BPL) or cannot progress without support. But we have seen election manifestos often do not honour such distinctions.

Irrational freebies also interfere with free and fair elections as they influence the people’s mind although it is not a corrupt practice. Further there is no accountability for giving out such freebies at all.

There is a complete lacuna in the law on this subject. Recently, even the Prime Minister has pointed out that this ‘revadi culture’ must be checked as it carries far-reaching economic consequences.

If we look closely at the voter behaviour in response to such irrational freebies, we find that the Aam Aadmi Party has managed to emerge as the sole regional party to have elected governments in two states — Delhi and Punjab.

The manifestoes and public speeches of this political party are full of giving away freebies which weakens the fiscal health of the state. For anything which goes haywire, the political party tends to cry out to the centre and tries level best to push the onus on the ruling establishment at the centre.

We have seen multiple such examples including Tamil Nadu, where the ‘Amma’ brand under J.Jayalalitha literally gave out all household items (free sarees, pressure cookers, television sets and washing machines) as freebies while she herself was convicted for disproportionate assets under the anti-corruption law.

Political parties in power tend to give incentives to the public in the form of irrational freebies just before elections to woo voters. For example, the Aam Aadmi Party issued a series of freebies just before the 2020 Delhi elections including free rides for women in metro trains and buses, free electricity for people who use up to 200 units, waiver of arrears in water bills, and extension of free entrance coaching to all students whose annual family income is less than Rs8 lakh.

The matter of ‘irrational freebies’ has reached the Supreme Court, where the BJP-led central government wants freebies stopped, while Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP says its schemes are for the welfare of the people and, thus, must continue. As pen pushers, let’s hope for a quicker solution.

Although the Supreme Court has hinted towards forming an expert committee rather than asking parliament to do it as political leadership may not want to lose on irrational freebies, yet, it will be much better if the top court decides the matter on the judicial side rather than delegating it. Let’s hope for the best. Fingers crossed!

(Namit Saxena is an Advocate on Record in the Supreme Court. His Twitter handle is @namitsaxena2007 and he can be reached on email at office@namitsaxena.in)

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