SC move welcome, there's urgent need to regulate freebies


The Supreme Court’s decision to set up an expert group to study the impact of freebies on taxpayers and the economy and suggest measures to regulate them is a welcome decision mainly because it targets a scourge that is deeply ingrained in the political system where the electorate is lured and largely misguided with exaggerated and highly unrealistic promises. The apex court has directed an independent body to be formed and asked it to submit a report based on interactions with stakeholders and the public.

It may be noted that historically election manifestos of parties are known for making monumental promises with a singular objective of wooing voters. Take the case of Goa. In the run-up to the 2022 assembly election, if Aam Aadmi Party promised 300 units of free electricity as one of its election guarantees, the BJP announced 16,000 litres of water free per household. Freebies during the election turned out to be competitive bids for votes.

Agricultural loan waiver, free electricity and water supply, lucrative schemes, unemployment doles and gifting gadgets like mobiles, laptops and tabs have been part and parcel of the political system across India. While the electorate laps up the freebies, there has been little or no thought to the impact they have on the finances of the State. There are no free lunches, so goes an adage, but in an election season does anyone care about the financial health of the State?

The question now is whether an effective system can be put in place to regulate freebies. Can an effective regulatory system pre-test electoral promises and doles for feasibility before being unveiled to the public? Will there be a political will to put stringent checks and balances in place? Can the election commission hold neutrality? Or will this reform too remain largely on paper?

Let’s not forget that other electoral regulations like controlling election expenses of candidates have failed big time across states. The election commission stipulates an expenses ceiling of Rs 40 lakh for every candidate at Assembly elections. The reality is completely different with elections becoming a slugfest of money power with crores being spent on campaigns. The Election Commission officials have remained helpless to the extravagant flow of cash. The checks and balances have failed because there are inherent shortcomings. The same is the case with attempts to decriminalise elections where despite explicit court orders candidates with pending criminal cases have been contesting elections.

Forming a regulatory mechanism is easy, and since the reality is before us all, it makes the job even easier. However, the practicability of implementation is susceptible, and history tells us the intent is lacking in the Election Commission.

The Supreme Court’s concerns are reasonable and genuine, and an attempt to address a critical issue that has been neglected for decades. We hope better sense will prevail among those in the political system, and in the years ahead candidates and parties uphold the spirit of free and fair elections.

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