If polls are approaching, can freebies be far behind? Despite political science experts and economists saying that offering freebies before the elections amounts to distortion of democracy, all parties down the years have indulged in the practice, offering almost everything, from free power to TV sets to secure votes.
Apologists have often argued that sops and freebies benefit people at the bottom of the pyramid. But political science experts, economists and bureaucrats pointed out that the argument would have held if the schemes were offered during the entire tenure (especially by the ruling party) and not immediately before the polls.
“There is a thin line between welfare schemes and freebies. In a country like India, welfare schemes certainly have a lot of value. But offering computers or TV sets or mixer grinders before the polls constitute nothing but bribes to influence voters,” said a former Chief Secretary of West Bengal.
“The Election Commission of India should initiate a dialogue to move towards a law banning such crass offers. Though I don’t think political parties will respond positively to it, the ECI must do its bit,” said the former bureaucrat.
Expanding the argument against freebies in the economy domain, Swapnendu Banerjee, who teaches economics in Jadavpur University, said: “The culture of offering freebies is a political disease, depriving the public exchequer to frequently spend on unnecessary items draining whatever little funds are there to utilise for development.”
“It is really unfortunate to see such a school of politics to flourish in an industrialised state like Tamil Nadu. The call of the hour is to have political parties who would make the electorate realise that they need to depend on the parties less and less. On the contrary, we are witnessing a tendency of the parties to send out the implicit message that we will provide you your basic needs, just sit back and vote for us,” he added.
Professor Mahananda Kanjilal agreed that freebies might actually take away the incentive to work for a section of the beneficiaries.
“There is no doubt that the state has a responsibility to provide basic education, basic healthcare facilities and welfare schemes for the bottom of the pyramid. But if political parties promises populist schemes for all segments of the population, housing, free ration, healthcare, cash transfer schemes, what is the incentive to work?” asked Kanjilal.
“The only way to develop is to attract investments in both manufacturing and service sectors. There cannot be any shortcut. The race for populism and freebies is, in a way, a race to the bottom.”
Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay, former principal of Presidency College and a professor of political science, concurs.
“Freebies constitute an unfortunate part of Indian democracy. While the electorate should assess a political party on its performance, money and muscle power creep in distorting the process,” said Mukhopadhyay.
Recalling a seminar by election commissioners in Kolkata seven years ago in which he was invited as a Constitution expert, Mukhopadhayay said: “During the recess a former chief election commissioner told me that in Tamil Nadu there are examples of devotees being taken to temples offered cash and then made to touch the feet of the deity and vow to vote in favour of a political party.”
The competition to provide freebies has begun in earnest in Tamil Nadu.
Ruling AIADMK, an alliance partner of BJP, has said that it will give a government job, a washing machine and cable TV connection to each family below the poverty line. Not to be outdone, main challenger DMK said it would reduce the price of LPG cylinders by Rs 100 apart from free tablet to every student of government schools and colleges.
Though political parties are yet to release any manifesto for the assembly election in West Bengal, there might be a competition on the freebies front, apprehend economists and political observers alike, given the high stakes for both ruling Trinamool Congress and main challenger BJP.
A serving bureaucrat in Bengal pointed out that ironically the Left Front, that ruled the state for 34 years, did not announce many freebies. But Trinamool Congress supremo was extremely bullish on populism and introduced a number of freebies in the state.
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