With seven Indian states – Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand – heading for assembly polls soon in the world’s largest democracy, political parties are scrambling to manipulate the voters’ choice by offering them irresistible “freebies.”
Carefully curated gifts are being dangled in front of voters to influence them to vote for specific parties. The goodies may range from hard cash to electric scooters to mobile phones, laptops, gas cylinders, free electricity, cooking vessels, cycles, mixer-grinders, government jobs, or even gold jewelry for daughters’ marriages.
Over the years, political aspirants have honed gift-giving to a fine art. For instance, in the last assembly elections, an independent candidate in the southern state of Tamil Nadu offered free robots to homemakers to help them in their domestic chores, three-story houses with a swimming pool for everyone, a mini-helicopter, 100 sovereigns of gold to women for their marriage, a boat for every family, and $50,000 to youths to start business ventures. It’s a different matter that he still lost the elections.
While few political parties have been able to match the above candidate’s outsized promises during this campaign cycle, what they’re offering isn’t inconsequential either. For instance, in the northern state of Punjab, India’s oldest political party – the 137-year-old Congress – has promised a range of financial incentives to voters if it comes to power. These include monthly scholarships for girl students studying in classes 5 to 12, free e-scooters for female college students and interest-free loans for their higher studies, as well as a sum of $30 as a monthly allowance to all homemakers.
Not to be left behind in the sops sweepstakes, the Aam Admi Party – which has a stake in Punjab, Goa, and Uttarakhand elections – is focusing on women and farmers. It has promised $12 per month to all women as well as free electricity for irrigation to farmers. The AAP has also offered to make free the first 300 units of electricity for all households in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends the largest number of members (80) among all Indian states to the 543-member Lok Sabha (lower house).
The competition for votes, say analysts, has surged as the ruling right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the level of campaign financing to record levels, especially in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The state is considered a bellwether that indicates which party will govern the country in the upcoming general elections.
Unsurprisingly, the BJP’s bonanza for UP this season includes a cash transfer of $30 to Indian farmers per month; $800 million to self-help groups empowering women; $15 sent to primary school students’ families for buying school gear, and $30 provided per month to 1 million girls.
To attract female voters, meanwhile, the Congress has promised a 40 percent reservation for the demographic that makes up nearly 50 percent of India’s 1.4 billion population. It has also released a separate “women only” manifesto offering smartphones and electric two-wheelers to girls, a rise in the amount of monthly pension for widows/senior citizens as well as free bus travel within the state for them.
The competition is no less fierce in the coastal state of Goa, where the Trinamool Congress-Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party combine has upped the ante by releasing a 10-point manifesto. Their list of promises include creation of 2 million new jobs with 80 percent reservation for locals; 10,000 government jobs in three years; as well as a boost to the state’s GDP through welfare initiatives. In addition, all women will received a direct cash transfer of $70 per month. For the youth, goodies include a collateral-free loan of up to $25,000 at a subsidized 4 percent interest rate as well as a provision for unemployment insurance for up to six months.
Despite the ubiquity of electoral handouts across India, however, critics warn they can imperil democratic structures, often irreversibly. They add that while such inducements have become an entrenched practice in Indian politics, they can also be a massive drain on a state’s treasury, especially at a time when the pandemic has upended all budgets.
“Unviable sops aimed at attracting votes are neither sustainable nor tenable and can often be ruinous as they ratchet up the subsidy burden on governments,” explained Dr. Kirit Bansal, an economist and visiting professor Delhi University. “When politicians promise sops, often fiscal constraints force governments into cutting corners elsewhere or raising new taxes.”
There are other consequences as well, Bansal pointed out. “Free water schemes to farmers deplete groundwater resources across India as per surveys while messing up farm economies.”
Bansal added that freebie policies are known to have a “distortionary effect” on the real outcomes of existing welfare schemes. “If politicians are really serious about citizen welfare, they should focus on employment generation, women’s empowerment, youth education, health and infrastructure development. Election time sops are not the solution to the problem and are no guarantee to a positive election outcome either,” he added.
The Supreme Court too, observed recently that freebies proffered by political parties at election time make free and fair polls impossible and “disturb a level-playing field.”
“I want to know how to control this legally. Can this be done during these elections? It has to be for the next election. It’s a serious issue. The freebies budget goes beyond the regular budget,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana noted.
Activists underscore how populist measures also violate the constitution. A recent petition filed in the Supreme Court argued that there should be a “total ban” on electoral sops. “This unethical practice is just like giving bribes to the electorate at the cost of the exchequer to stay in power and must be avoided to preserve democratic principles and practices… it is not only the greatest threat to the survival of democratic values but also injures the spirit of the Constitution,” the petition said.
India’s Vice President Venkaiah Naidu too, has urged for a wider debate on the issue.
However, some analysts point out that freebies are nothing unique to India and find a place in all poll manifestoes across all democracies in the world during election season. Some of these promises may even be good policy and address real issues — for instance, the PM-Kisan scheme, which transfers cash directly into distressed and debt-ridden farmers’ bank accounts. Similarly, millions have been saved from starvation thanks to Tamil Nadu’s “Amma Canteens,” which provide nutritious meals to the poor for just 10 cents.
Be that as it may, there’s no guarantee that freebies will help a candidate win the election. While some gullible voters may fall for this political trap, most voters have smartened up and often have the last laugh.
One such voter is Sulakshana Shetty, 80, a Chennai-based housewife. She said she accepted all the gifts from all the parties in the last assembly elections, but voted for an independent woman candidate who “seemed sincere.”
“Politicians are greedy; they make all kinds of promises at election time and then forget about us later. They need to be taught a lesson,” she chuckled.