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Amid Freebie Politics: Vikas Takes a Backseat

Jaswant Kaur Jaswant Kaur
20 Nov 2023

If November has been a month of festivals, it is also an election month for five states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. At the time of writing, two states have already completed the election process. Another will go to polls by the time this write-up is published.

Elections are no less than a festival. People from various political parties, who occasionally show their faces for inaugurating a building or a scheme or a road etc., or are mostly visible on TV shows or newspaper advertisements, make themselves available for khulle darshan, usually dressed in a desi attire (often a white kurta pajama and a kohlapuri chappal) with an invisible neck covered with garlands. With broad smiles and a pretense of humility, they move from one corner to another, pleading for votes with folded hands. 
It is usual to see huge rallies, road shows, events at the local-level in the run up to the elections. The election speeches are generally spiced up with a lot of rhetoric, promises, exaggerated claims of their innumerable achievements with an aim to throttle the chances of other candidates.

While the high-ups come flying, mostly from the metro cities, for a day or two, often with a huge list of announcements, people on the ground are seen conducting door-to-door visits, canvassing and distributing various kinds of merchandise along with their manifesto.

These announcements are generally made to entice voters and are often directed at a particular category of voters.

If we look at the past few months, we will find a number of schemes, entailing a budget of lakhs and crores of rupees, being announced closer to elections. From pressure cookers to laptops to cycles to direct-cash transfers to free pilgrimages to clothes to free electricity to free gas connections and so-on, the list seems to be endless. The word “free” is used more often during elections than during any festival season. At least during festivals, one has to spend some money to get something free. In the case of elections, people are not even required to read election manifestos. Be it the ruling party or the opposition, people get access to such freebies irrespective of their loyalty or interest.  

A week ago, the Prime Minister even announced the extension of the free ration scheme for another five years. The scheme was estimated to cost Rs. 2 lakh crores before the announcement of its extension. Going by this, it will cost anything more than Rs. 10 lakh crore over the next five years, without taking into account the impact of inflation. Of course, the target is not the Assembly elections but the Lok Sabha Elections next year. Even the scheme Prime Minister Awas Yojna has been extended multiple times.

It was only last year that Modi came down heavily upon this practice. “Attempts are being made to collect votes by distributing free revdis. This revdi culture is very dangerous for the development of the country,” he remarked. The statement was made in the light of the practice followed by political parties promising freebies and subsidies in exchange for votes. Not only this, the statement led to the filing of a public interest litigation before the Supreme Court.

It is evident that the Pradhan Sevak knows that the long-lived issue of “roti, kapra aur makaan” is as relevant today as it was 75 years ago. Now the question is if India is growing at the pace, which the government claims to be the fastest in the world, why do people still need schemes, especially when the amritkaal, the so-called golden period, has already begun? Many would say, this has nothing to do with the growth rate!

If we look at the five states, where assembly elections have been announced, one would find that per capita income growth from 2019 to 2023 is way less than the period 2014 to 2019. It shows that effect of the pandemic continues to linger on. To add to the woes, is the inflation rate, which remains high in all the five states. The unemployment rate is higher than the national average in Rajasthan and Telangana. All the five states have more than 20 per cent debt to Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) ratio. 

In such a scenario, to what extent can the state government afford such unquestioned announcements during the elections! Clearly, the money will either be diverted from other welfare schemes or infrastructural development budgets. For instance, of late, a lot of money for the rural employment guarantee scheme was taken from the Prime Minister Awaas Yojana, assuming that these MNREGA workers have been employed in constructing houses in the scheme. The ground reality is way different. 

Another example comes from a report released by the government think-tank which showed that laptops distributed by the Uttar Pradesh government reduced the budget available for improving school infrastructure, faculty development programmes for improving learning outcomes.

Many times, substandard products are distributed, which are of not-much use to the general public. For example, laptops distributed by many state governments had limited functionality. Clearly, the students, who were given such laptops, would either have sold them or would have spent huge money to make them functional. In other words, such products are given without taking into account the financial health of the states as well as their usability. Besides, many schemes such as Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, the famous scheme promising direct cash transfer of Rs. 6000 to farmers, create long-term dependency on the governments.

Many are harmful for the environment, impact the behavioural patterns of people and affect the quality of overall service delivery. For example, free electricity supply or water supply or gas cylinders tend to reduce the incentives for conservation, increase carbon footprint and pollution levels. Another example comes from a report published by the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) showing that free distribution of power for farmers in Punjab led to its overuse and wastage. Not only this, it resulted in lower level of tax compliance and poor delivery of electricity across the state. In other words, it altered the consumption pattern and behaviour of the farmers. Had they been paying for electricity they would have used it judiciously rather than adopting such malpractices.

Besides, this practice is not good for the democratic fabric of the country. Our constitution promotes independence and freedom of thought, expression and action. The concept of people’s voices gets vitiated when political parties try to influence their opinion in their favour. Many think that such freebies do not have much impact. A survey conducted by the Association for Democratic Reforms shows that 41 per cent of the voters consider freebies as an important factor for voting.

The larger question that remains unanswered is: Why can’t the government as well as opposition play the role that they have been elected for? Why our economy is still facing the heat of the pandemic? What have we done to recover or where have we failed as a country? Why can’t we work towards development/vikas, the word that has been used repeatedly over the last several years. In fact, in one of the 30-min-speeches, it was used as many as 25 times! 

Had we actually progressed, the poorest of the poor would not have depended on such schemes. They would have had enough money to not only take care of roti, kapra aur makaan but other necessities (read luxuries) like education, healthcare too! The intense competition for distributing freebies would not have existed had our elected representatives stayed true to their words! The power would have remained with people, not with a handful of politicians, who try to tilt the balance in their favour in every way possible at the cost of public funds.

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