The Election Commission of India seems to have reluctantly abandoned its earlier hands-off approach in the continuing debate on electoral freebies. On Tuesday, it sent out a questionnaire to various political parties, asking them to spell out ways and means to finance their promises of freebies — revadis as the Prime Minister called them — to voters on poll eve. Not surprisingly, the Opposition parties accused the poll body of ‘overreach’. In April, the ECI, in an affidavit, had told the Supreme Court that offering freebies was a policy decision of parties and it was for voters to decide their financial viability. The Supreme Court is hearing a PIL against what the petitioner calls ‘irrational freebies’. However, the ECI felt constrained to file a supplementary affidavit after the apex court expressed displeasure over its earlier stand of steering clear of the controversy.
In the subsequent affidavit, the ECI conceded that “freebies can have different impacts on society, economy, equity, depending upon the situation, context and time period”. Yet, it told the court that it would not be appropriate for it to be part of a proposed expert committee to examine the issue threadbare, especially when it would also have government representatives as its members. Given the reckless manner in which some parties have sought to woo voters by promising all manner of goodies, which by no stretch of the imagination they would be in a position to honour if voted to power, some restraint on extravagant promises is called for. For example, the Aam Aadmi Party is now offering Rs3,000 monthly allowance to every unemployed youth in Gujarat besides a million new jobs. Earlier, the same party had swept the poll in Punjab on the promise, among others such as free bijli-paani, of paying from the very first month of coming to power a Rs1,000 monthly stipend to every woman 18 and above in the state. A rough calculation had revealed that the annual burden on the state’s finances would be an additional Rs4,000 crore. Several months after coming to power, AAP is yet to implement its promise.
However, we cannot see how the ECI, or even the courts, can regulate what a political party should or should not promise voters. This is a matter best left to voters to decide. Even if the voters are hoodwinked by tall promises, in time they will turn their collective back on the party which deceives them. The argument that ordinary people are ignorant and prone to be misled cannot be allowed to hold sway for, taken to its logical conclusion, it would nix our faith in the democratic system itself. Regardless of the people’s level of education, the democratic process has deepened over the years. Ordinary people may not be aware of what is going on in other parts of the country, never mind the world at large, but they are invested in their local and state politics. The average voter has now become clever, knows what is good for her, and her voting preference is generally determined by factors such as caste, community and pecuniary interests.
The controversy over freebies has assumed a sharper edge after the newbie, AAP, swept to power in the national capital by promising free bijli-paani. It could do so in a half-state that is Delhi because unlike Punjab or, for that matter, a majority of other states, it is cash-rich. Delhi receives generous funding from the Centre. Besides, it does not have to pay for the upkeep of the Delhi Police and the pensions of central government employees on its rolls. However, we fail to see how the ECI or any other authority, including the Supreme Court, could have prevented AAP from making wild promises. It is par for the course for all politicians to lure voters by promising the moon. In any case, the poll body can regulate such promises only by opening itself to the charge of ‘overreach’.
Admittedly, the promise of giveaways vitiates the atmosphere for an independent and fair poll, but the remedy is a vigilant voter, an aware voter, a well-informed voter, not an Election Commission that insists on knowing how and from where funds will be raised to pay for the freebies. There are some things that cannot be regulated. Poll-eve promises are one. It was ironic that on the very day the ECI sent a circular to all parties seeking their views on freebies, the media also showed a Telangana minister distributing liquor and chicken to people in Hyderabad. How would the ECI classify them: Pre-poll freebies?