Freebies do not always decide poll outcome for political parties: SC

Krishnadas Rajagopal | Updated on: Aug 19, 2022

| Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

‘Given a chance, voters may opt for welfare schemes such as MNREGA’

Voters, if given a chance, will prefer to earn a dignified earning through welfare schemes such as MNREGA and create public assets in rural India. Freebies do not always decide the outcome of elections for political parties, said the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

A Bench led by Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, said past experiences have seen that promises alone do not decide the outcome of elections. There have been instances of parties losing elections despite premises of freebies.

“Given an opportunity, they [voters] will opt for dignified earning. For example, MNREGA offered dignified earning and also created public assets in rural areas. So, I don’t think promises alone decide the outcome of elections... There are instances of parties not being elected despite their promises,” said Chief Justice Ramana.

Irrational freebies

The court is hearing a petition to curb the practice of offering or distributing irrational freebies at the cost of public money, especially in debt-ridden States during the run-up to elections.

The court said its primary concern is about “the right way of spending public money”. The court indicated that promises of freebies come at a cost to the public exchequer. “At the end of the day, we must say there is no free lunch,” the Bench observed.

The court is dealing with rival contentions raised in the case. On one side that freebies are a waste of public money and a sure road to economic doom for the country, while on the other hand that these are incentives and schemes to ensure public welfare.

“What does a ‘valid promise’ exactly comprise? Can promise of electricity, water be considered as freebies? Can we treat promises of consumer electronics free of cost for all as a welfare measure?” the court asked.

Chief Justice Ramana said freebies should not be confused with welfare schemes introduced by States.

Senior advocate P Wilson, for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, submitted that the Constitution empowered States to promulgate welfare schemes. The term freebies cannot be interpreted to restrict States’ competence to provide welfare.

The Bench noted that Article 38 of the Constitution mandates States to ensure the welfare of the people, “minimise inequalities in income and endeavour to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only among individuals but also among groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations”.

The court said parties involved, including the Centre, State parties should come up with their opinions and recommendations on the issue of freebies. The court posted the case next week.

In the previous hearing, senior advocate Vikas Singh, for petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, said states have ₹ 15 lakh crore debt. “Public money should not be misused by political parties whose only intention is to gain and retain power,” Mr. Singh said.

Senior advocate Arvind Datar, also for the petitioner side, said “giving laptops, TVs and gold chains cannot be to promote Directive Principles of State Policy”.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, agreed with the court’s proposal to form an expert body to recommend guidelines against freebies.

He said the “freebie culture” has been “elevated to an art” by some parties.

“Sometimes, elections are fought only on the promise of freebies. It is a dangerous situation if distribution of freebies is considered the only way to reach out to the electorate… We are leading the country to a disaster,” Mr. Mehta submitted.

The top law officer had even suggested that the proposed expert body should, along with representatives of national political parties, RBI, Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, etc, also have members of the industry. He pointed out that some of these sectors, like electricity, was already “stressed” by the distribution of freebies by certain state governments.

Chief Justice Ramana said the court is striving for a balance between the welfare requirements of the people, especially the poor and the downtrodden, and the need to avert a national economic loss through unbridled distribution of largesse by political parties to hold on to power.

Published on August 17, 2022
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