The Supreme Court has asked various stakeholders, including the Centre, Niti Aayog, Finance Commission and the RBI, to come up with ‘constructive suggestions’ to deal with the widely prevalent practice of promising freebies to woo voters in the run-up to elections. The court has suggested the setting up of an expert body to scrutinise the problem and find a solution. The Centre has finally taken a firm stand on the issue, telling the court that the distribution of freebies ‘inevitably leads to future economic disaster’.
No political party can resist the temptation of luring the electorate. While Opposition parties promise the moon to the voters if elected to power, the ruling dispensation starts doling out sops months before the model code of conduct is enforced. Incumbent governments have no qualms about splurging public funds to ‘bribe’ electors. For instance, the distribution of free food kits had worked wonders for the ruling Left Democratic Front in the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections, just two years after it had suffered a debacle in the Lok Sabha polls.
A blanket ban on pre-poll announcements won’t be a workable solution. However, the Election Commission (EC) can frame guidelines for keeping unreasonable and irrational promises out of poll manifestos. There should also be norms restraining governments from dishing out new welfare schemes or doles during the last six months of their tenure. The EC not only has to ensure a level playing field but also take political parties to task whenever the estimated freebie budget equals or exceeds the government’s regular budget. Electoral considerations must not be allowed to eclipse economic constraints. With the Centre apprising the apex court of its aversion to freebies and PM Modi lashing out at ‘revdi culture’, the ruling party needs to lead by example and try to build political consensus on this matter. A mechanism to regulate or minimise pre-poll doles should be developed at the earliest so that it can be put to the test in the BJP-ruled states of Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections later this year.
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