When Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for an end to the “revadi culture” on July 17, he might not have expected that two weeks later a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana, hearing a petition seeking curbs on distribution of freebies by political parties, would decide to set up an independent expert committee to “study the impact of freebies on the taxpayers and the national economy and recommend measures to regulate it”.
The prime minister’s target was the governments of opposition parties in states, such as the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the Trinamool Congress (TMC), the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the governments that have been constantly attacked by BJP leaders for distributing freebies and recently even blamed for driving the country dangerously toward a “Sri Lanka-like situation”!
The Supreme Court did not look at it as an opposition parties’ problem, though. They decided to set up an independent committee because they saw all parties distributed “revadis” (literally, small cakes of sugar or molasses covered with sesame seeds — and metaphorically, freebies). When senior advocate Kapil Sibal said the court should leave it to Parliament to decide on “appropriate remedial measures”, the bench shot back, “Do you seriously think Parliament will debate regulating freebies? Which political party will debate this issue? No party will agree on curbs on freebies ahead of polls. Each of them wants it.”
So, in a way, the Prime Minister’s remark on the “revadi culture” has boomeranged on the BJP. The SC committee is going to examine the freebies distributed by all the parties—the BJP at the Centre and in some states, as well as the non-BJP parties.
Of course, every party is going to deny they do it. Every party is going to tell the committee, “What they give is freebies… what we give is not freebies.” It is not going to be easy for the committee—which will have representatives of the NITI Aayog, the RBI, the yet-to-be-constituted sixteenth Finance Commission, the Election Commission and political parties—to define what are freebies and what are not. Whereas the BJP might describe an opposition-ruled state’s freebies as a “drain” on its finances, the state might call it “productive expenditure” and even assert its sovereignty to decide what was good or bad for its people. Whereas the opposition parties might present a long list of the Modi government’s freebies, the BJP might argue they were “aimed at accelerating human development”.
Of course, the economists and the public finance and central bank professionals on the committee are going to have a different view on the freebies, because their primary consideration would be how they impact the state of public finances. But they would not have any authority to tell governments to drop or continue with a certain scheme, because making schemes is entirely the domain of elected governments. They might say, “Your finances are not good, you might face problems repaying your debts, you should not stretch your expenditure too much,” but they cannot say, “Discontinue such-and-such schemes because they are freebies.” Their definition of a freebie is going to be based on their judgement whether it is good or bad for the public finances and not on whether it is productive or wasteful.
At best the committee might end up drawing up a list of broad guidelines on how to regulate spending by the central and state governments. A number of such guidelines already exist to enforce financial discipline. Some of these guidelines, such as Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management, are backed by laws. The SC committee might suggest some more ways to strengthen fiscal prudence.
At the end of the committee’s findings, therefore, we might come back to the same situation as we are facing today: The economists, public finance experts and the RBI expressing fears of a “fiscal disaster” with governments distributing freebies, and the governments stretching their budgets and borrowing for distributing them and saying they know best how to look after their people and manage their finances.
There is never going to be an end to the revadi culture. The reason is not far to seek. The political parties do not want to attack the root of the problem.
There are two sets of actors in the revadi culture: the political parties and the target sections. The political parties distribute revadis to get the votes of the target sections. Why are people willing to barter their freedom of political choice with freebies? Because they desperately need freebies. Why do they desperately need freebies? Because they do not have a decent income to fulfill their family’s needs and also make savings, to live with respect, dignity and financial security. Do upper and middle classes want freebies? No. They might even feel insulted by the remotest suggestion of it. “What do you think, are we beggars?” they might shout.
The revadi culture exists because poverty exists and poverty exists because no national employment policy exists. In June 2022, as many as 44% of youth (20-24 age group) in the country were jobless. In number, that would mean at least 15 crore youths. About one crore workers who were laid off by the manufacturing sector during the pandemic have not been taken back. As many as 80 lakh persons engaged in non-farm sectors lost their jobs in the two months of June and July 2022. Out of 22 crore persons who applied for central government jobs in the past eight years only 7.22 lakh or only one percent of the applicants got jobs. Can you fault the several crores of jobless Indians if they desperately seek revadis and are ready to sell their votes for them?
Revadi seeking is not limited to the jobless. Even most of those who have jobs desperately seek revadis. Why? The conventional wisdom was that if the surplus labour moved from agriculture to non-farm employment, it would bring economic growth and higher wages and better living conditions for workers. Though economic growth has taken place, the wages and living conditions of workers have not improved. Most of the urban workers (for example, gig workers) have casual, low-wage jobs, with no paid leave, medical reimbursement, safety, accident insurance, provident fund or pension. Can we fault them for trading their votes for revadis?
Isn’t it clear? The onus for ending the “revadi culture” lies on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the BJP and all other parties. They have to work together to create an employment policy that provides for secure jobs with decent income to all.
Arun Sinha is an independent journalist and the author of ‘Against the Few: Struggles of India’s Rural Poor’