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Revadi Culture In Voting: Time For A Rethink – OpEd

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Revadi culture of offering freebies for votes is not only hazardous for the development of the country but also makes the population lethargic. This has made the Indian population non-work alcoholic and laissez-faire. ‘Revadi’, is a famous north Indian sweet often distributed during festivals, as a metaphor for freebies being promised by various parties to grab power. Inadequate disclosures on poll promises and consequential undesirable impact on financial sustainability as empty poll promises have far-reaching ramifications.

The thinking behind every decision and policy should be that development of the country would be accelerated and ensured that all those things that harm and negatively impact the country’s development are kept away. The country has got a very good opportunity for development and it should not let this go. We have to ensure maximum development in every era and take the country to new heights and build a new India. 

New India also faces a challenge, which if overlooked now, would be harmful to this generation. The present will be lost and the future pushed into darkness. It is important to be vigilant. “In our country today, attempts are being made to bring a culture of garnering votes by distributing ‘Revadi’ culture’ that is very dangerous for the development of the country. People of the country and especially the youth need to guard against this culture. The ‘Revadi culture’ people think they will buy out people by distributing free ‘Revadi’. We have to jointly defeat this thinking of theirs and remove ‘Revadi culture’ from the country’s politics forever. 

SUPREME COURT VIEW:

The freebie culture has made it to the centre stage of Indian politics. While a few are criticizing, many are advocating freebies for people. The matter has also reached the Supreme Court (SCI) through a PIL filed by BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay’s petition in opposition to the practice of political parties providing or promising freebies to voters. The intervention plea was filed in response to a Public interest litigation (PIL) petition also filed by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, who asked the Central government and the Election Commission to take steps to regulate political party poll manifestos and hold parties accountable for promises made in such manifestos.

On August 3, the SCI, suggesting the formation of an expert body, had orally observed that the Parliament may not be able to effectively debate the issue of doing away with “irrational freebies”. In reality, not a single political party wanted to take away freebies. The Election Commission of India (ECI) also came in support of instituting a committee as suggested by the Supreme Court to take a holistic view on how to curb the culture of freebies in elections. Filing the counter affidavit on a PIL by advocate Ashwani Upadhyay, the poll panel said, “Setting up any such expert body, having representation from a wide spectrum of the government and non-governmental bodies is a welcome step. The Election Commission of India has declined to be part of the expert body proposed to be constituted by the Supreme Court to examine the issues. Being a constitutional body, its views during deliberation may pre-decide the issue and affect a level playing field

POLL PANEL VIEW:

On October 4, ECI came down heavily on political parties over freebie culture. In a letter written to the officials of political parties, ECI not only criticized the political parties for offering freebies without explanation over how they would fulfill them but also proposed a Proforma to fill where the parties have been asked to explain the roadmap which they would use to raise funds for the freebies offered in the manifesto.

Termed ‘Standardized Disclosure Proforma’, it contains sections that political parties will have to fill to explain the financial implications of the promises made and provide possible ways to fulfill them. The ECI has asked the political parties and candidates to reply with their views by October 19. In case no reply is received, ECI will assume that the parties or candidates do not have anything specific to say on the proposed amendments in the Model Code of Conduct (MCC).

In its letter, ECI said that it is the right of eligible voters to exercise their vote with ease and have authentic and adequate information at each electoral stage.  The choice to cast the vote, i.e. the most precious gift of democracy is directly and intricately linked to access to timely and reliable information. It is in this background that the timely availability of data points to assess the financial viability of the promises made to voters in the election manifestos assumes criticality.

Furthermore, ECI said that though it recognizes the right of the political parties to make promises in the manifesto, “it cannot overlook the undesirable impact of some of the promises and offers on the conduct of free and fair elections and maintaining a level playing field for all political parties and candidates”.

Based on the directions given by the Supreme Court in the Subramaniam Balaji Case and Article 324 of the Constitution that mandates the Election Commission to conduct elections inter alia to the Parliament and the State Legislatures, the ECI has issued guidelines via amendment in MCC in 2015 for the Political Parties and Candidates to adhere while releasing the election manifesto. These guidelines talk about the promises that political parties make in their manifesto.

Notably, the guidelines direct the political parties and candidates to “avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise.” Further, it also directed the parties and candidates to “reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it.”

The ECIhas plans to float a consultation paper that proposes that political parties should detail the financial implications of promises made ahead of elections, while also establishing how they could be financed. The poll panel is cognizant of the fact that “there is no legislative space to define freebies or welfare” and therefore political parties should elaborate “on the rationale for announcing such promises and the financing plan”. ECI is of the view that while political parties cannot be stopped from making promises, the voter also has the right to be informed and make an informed choice.

It will seek elaborate disclosures by parties and the state or Union government about how promises will be financed, which will allow voters to “compare political parties and understand if the promises can indeed be met. The chief secretary of every state and the Union finance secretary shall provide details of tax and expenditure in a specified format before elections are due. The idea is to make a physical and financial quantification of promise… if it’s a farm loan waiver, then will it be available to all farmers, or only small and marginal farmers, etc. Further, how will it be funded given the committed and developmental expenditure set aside by the state or the Centre? Hence the ECI has sought elaborate disclosures by parties and the state government or the Central government. This is expected to let voters compare political parties and understand if the promises can indeed be met.

The ECI hopes to call parties for consultation on the paper before it can make necessary changes in the Model Code of Conduct ahead of elections. The MCC period may also be advanced, and need not necessarily have to wait for the ECI to announce the polling schedule. The plan is to bring the topic of financing schemes and prudence into the political discourse. 

The move is a bid by the poll panel to curb the ambiguity and financial vagueness of promises made by political parties in their election manifestos. It has sought the views of all recognized parties on this matter. The parties have time till October 19 to respond.

The proforma will ensure that the parties have the means to sponsor the changes and that voters are aware of the financial ramifications of the electoral promises. The form will include the declarations of the extent and expanse of coverage (for example, individual, family, community, BPL or all population, etc.); quantification of physical coverage; quantification of financial implications of the promise(s) made; availability of the financial resources; ways and means of raising resources for meeting the additional expenditure to be incurred in fulfilling the promises; the impact of the additional resource raising plan (for fulfilling promises) on fiscal sustainability of the state or the Union government, as the case may be.

“While the existing guidelines under MCC require the political parties and candidates to explain the rationale for promises made therein as well as the possible ways and means to finance such promises, the Election Commission has observed that the declarations are quite routine, ambiguous, and do not provide adequate information to voters to exercise informed choice in an election.

WHO OFFERED FREEBIES     

Aam Aadmi Party introduced a 50 percent subsidy on electricity bills after coming to power in 2013 and 20 thousand liters of free water per month. Later, before the 2020 assembly polls, it made 200 free electricity in Delhi and announced 300 units of free electricity in Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, and now in Gujarat. After forming the government in Punjab, AAP made 300 units of free electricity. In Delhi, the party offered free pilgrimage for senior citizens. In recent poll-bound states, the party promised Rs 1,000 for unemployed women and free health and education for all. In Delhi, it has also made free bus rides for women in the public transport fleet.

The BJP-led central government had made Rs 6,000 per year to the farmers calling it kisan samman nidhi just ahead of the 2019 general elections. It was aimed at providing financial assistance to farmer families who require support. The scheme played spectacularly in the 2019 polls for BJP. In West Bengal assembly polls it promised Rs 22,000 for girls in four installments at different points during her schooling to counter Mamta Banerjee’s kanyashree scheme. BJP manifesto also promised annual cash aid of Rs 10,000 for farmers and annual financial assistance of Rs 6,000 for fishermen. The BJP, in UP manifesto 2022, had promised free cylinders and scooty for women, free electricity for farmers, and 2 crore tablets for the young. BJP-led Himachal Pradesh government also announced free electricity and a 50 percent discount for women on debt-ridden public transport. The BJP also announced free drinking water and free travel to women commuters in Metro and city buses during Hyderabad municipal polls, along with free power to all houses using less than 100 units per month.

Congress also joined the wagon for 2022 recently in five state assembly polls offering ‘freebies’. Party offered scooters and smartphones and promised to cut power bills and farm loans would be waived. For the coming assembly polls in Himachal Pradesh congress announced a monthly allowance of 1,500 for women and 300 units of free electricity, for all households. The biggest promise congress made during the general elections in 2019 was to waive farm loans.

The TRS in Telangana offered free drinking water and free powers for certain categories of consumers in the party’s manifesto for the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) elections last year.

DMK and AIADMK regional parties of south India have also been ahead in offering freebies. The AIADMK had announced the reduction in fuel prices and DMK said to slash petrol rates by Rs 5 and diesel by Rs 4 for Tamilnadu assembly elections. Subsequently, the ruling AIADMK offered all ration card holders free washing machines and solar gas stoves and DMK promised to distribute tablets and computers with internet connections to students.

TMC during the Bengal assembly polls announced the Universal Basic Income scheme for all weaker sections and promised Rs 500 per month for general category families and Rs 1,000 per month for SC/ST category. TMC also promised to increase the support to small farmers from Rs 6,000 per acre to Rs 10,000 annually. The TMC manifesto also promised student credit cards with a limit of Rs 10 lakh with a 4 percent rate of interest guaranteed by the state to youngsters for higher studies.

WHAT POLITICAL PARTIES SAY

The Aam Adami Party is being accused of offering freebies, including free electricity and free water. The AAP also filed an additional affidavit in the freebies case before the Supreme Court saying terms of reference that may be formulated for an expert panel on freebies “must exclude considerations of electoral speeches”. If concerns over fiscal deficit and responsibility are indeed the point of the present proceedings, targeting and regulating electoral speech will amount to nothing more than a wild-goose chase. Electoral speeches made by unelected candidates are not, and cannot be, official statements of intent about a future government’s budgetary plans. The court’s intervention, if any, in the interests of fiscal responsibility should instead focus on the point of actual outgoing of funds from the public exchequer, that is, budgetary actions of already elected governments and their financial planning processes. Aam Aadmi Party National convener and Delhi CM, Arvind Kejriwal, has openly said that if politicians can get free visas, why not people get free healthcare and free education, accusing the Centre of waving off billions of rupees loans for the corporate turning them into freebies.

BJPaccused the Aam Aadmi Party of using freebies to fulfill the political ambitions of its National Convener. However, BJP claimed that the welfare measures of the Modi government are designed to help the people stand on their feet. Freebies are aimed to get into power as they have no long-term benefits.

According to Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS), thewelfare schemes for poor people are not ‘freebies,’ and waiving loans from “dupe agencies” are actual freebies. In Telangana, around 250 welfare schemes are being run for poor people. It is the responsibility of the state government to keep the best interests of the poor in mind. There is a trend across the nation terming welfare schemes as ‘freebies. The Centre is putting pressure on the state govt to stop these schemes. We’re very against this behavior. The welfare of poor people is the responsibility of any government. A ‘freebie’ is what the BJP government has done- writing off a 10 lakh crore debt of dupe agencies. India is such a diverse country with people from all backgrounds. It is the government’s responsibility to help the weaker communities to break the cycle of poverty and progress. State governments are working towards it and the central government should not put any hindrances to that.

According to the Madhya Pradesh Congress leader, freebies in elections, such as framing schemes and providing subsidies, are the responsibility of ruling parties to help the weaker sections of society. That providing such subsidies and concessions to citizens is in the discharge of the Constitutional mandate, which is necessary for democracy. “As per our doctrine of the Constitution, ruling parties are duty-bound to frame policies for the welfare and uplifting of the weaker sections. Therefore, they are rightly giving subsidies and it cannot be said freebies.

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)moved the application in the SC in the freebies case saying welfare measures are not freebies. The Centre’s tax waivers and loan waivers should also be included as “freebies” welfare schemes providing free services are introduced with the intent of securing social order and economic justice under Article 38 to minimize the inequalities in income, status, facilities, and opportunities. In no imaginable reality, it could be construed as a “freebie”. Such schemes have been introduced to provide necessities that poor households cannot afford. They cannot be imputed to be luxuries. The party in power in Tamil Nadu has also defended the free electricity and other schemes introduced in the state. Electricity can provide lighting, heating, and cooling, resulting in a better standard of living. It can facilitate a child in his education and studies. A welfare scheme, therefore, can have a wide reach and multiple intentions behind its introduction and the cascading effect arising from it cannot be defined in a restrictive meaning as a freebie.

According toShiv Sena, the issue is being raised by a political party and the petitioner also belongs to the political party. We need to see the loans of defaulters being waived off, which damage the economy worse than social welfare schemes which they all freebies.

WAY-OUT:

What are considered “freebies” in normal times can be lifesavers during a disaster or a pandemic. Both “irrational” and “freebies” were terms open to subjective interpretation. They have no legal precise definitions. What may be irrational or a freebie for one may be rational and essential for another section of society. ‘Freebies’ can have a different impact on society, economy, and equity depending on the situation… For instance, during natural disasters/pandemics, providing life-saving medicine, food, funds, etc, may be life and economic savior but in normal times, they could be termed ‘freebies. The benefits of cross-subsidization and situation/sector-specific reliefs to address the different vulnerabilities of sections of society cannot be underestimated. The ban on freebies could be “tweaked” by political parties to serve their ends. Political parties can make such promises they know would be banned or adversely commented upon by the regulatory authority. This might serve to give them more publicity and mileage than actual implementation post-election.

On August 3, the Supreme Court, suggesting the formation of an expert body, had orally observed that the Parliament may not be able to effectively debate the issue of doing away with “irrational freebies”. It said the “reality” was that not a single political party wanted to take away freebies. The ECI, however, said it welcomed the court’s proposal to set up an expert body, drawn from a wide spectrum of government and non-government bodies, to study and suggest solutions to the problem of freebies. But the Election Commission said it cannot be part of the body. The Commission would give the recommendations of the expert body its “highest consideration”.

Centre had said freebies were paving the way to an “economic disaster” besides “distorting the informed decision of voters. The Centre substantially and in principle supported doing away with the practice of promising freebies to voters. Freebies should be abolished from Indian History. Nobody, right from the first citizen of India, should be eligible for Revadi to have better utilization of taxpayers except under natural calamities conditions.

States need to be cautious about the way they spend money. If they spend money on unnecessary things (like free electricity, and food), then their financial health will go for a toss. States need to invest in infrastructure that will be beneficial for citizens. Also, freebies need to be stopped; otherwise, state coffers will be empty in no time. The central government has also backed the petitioner, stating that political party freebies must be regulated and that the Supreme Court can step in and rule until the legislature passes legislation in this regard.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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