How have freebie politics evolved?

Over the years, election campaigns in India have evolved to get maximum votes by using various strategies. In 1967 when Annadurai promised to give the poor rice at an overwhelming low price, nobody had the slightest idea that this welfare measure would take a monstrous shape and political parties would dole out washing machines, television sets, mangalsutras et cetera in Tamil Nadu. This freebie model of governance has virulently spread across the political spectrum in India and is aided by the problems of poverty, illiteracy, and ignorance among the Indian masses.  Every time with the announcement of elections the parties instead of asking for votes on the account of work done by them, try to entice the voters with a new set of materialistic and illusory promises. Now, since the Supreme Court has admitted the PIL filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay against the misuse of poll promises it becomes pertinent to understand the threats posed by freebie politics.

Problems associated with the freebie culture

The phenomenon of competitive freebie politics raises many questions about the sanctity of the electoral process. Giving away such ‘gifts’ is almost equivalent to bribing the voters and a fraud on the taxpayers, who pay taxes diligently thinking that these would be appropriately used for nation-building. Moreover, such policies take a toll on the economy. As per the interim budget estimates Tamil Tamil Nadu Nadu has a debt of ₹5,70,189 crore. In addition to this, the public debt on the state is 26.69% which is higher than the limit of 25% set by the 14th Financial Financial Commission. Political parties try to justify handing out sops under the garb of redistribution of income and bridging vast economic disparity. However, they fail to address the issue of the longevity of such measures. In an article, Francois Bourguignon highlighted that certain measures may yield quick results but do not solve the problem of poverty in the long run. But other measures such as access to quality education and healthcare build the foundation for a decent standard of living. The methods being currently adopted by parties may give instant gratification but are not the solution to the problems faced by the country.  

In recent times, another issue has emerged that political parties are now targeting a wider section of the population which includes even those who have the means to provide themselves with the articles promised. Adopting such policies neither stands the reasonable classification test under Article 14 of the Constitution nor it can be justified in the name of redistribution of income. Another problem with poll promises is the lack of research on the part of parties. Many parties claim that they release their manifestos after holding consultations with the people on the grassroots but they do not back their claim with research reports, for instance, none of the major political parties has given a description of how they concluded what policies were needed for a particular state. The lack of transparency in the making of manifestoes and exclusion of the stakeholders does not auger well for our democracy. The Aam Aadmi Party during the 2015 Delhi elections claimed to have launched the ‘Delhi Dialogue’ initiative to know people’s desires and demands. But the moot question is that – where is the proof of such research? The writer had a chance to talk to some beneficiaries who got laptops during the Akhilesh government. Some said they didn’t know how to use laptops, others moaned about the lack of electricity and some even sold the laptops in cities. The government instead should have introduced effective computer education at the school level and opened computer training centres to impart free cyberlearning to adults. Over-emphasis on populism and little attention to research are the causes of such problems.

What does the law say?

In 2013, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court[1] to declare free gifts as ‘corrupt practices’   is undertaken on 123 of the Representation of Peoples Act [RP ACT]. The Supreme Court  refused  to term it as ‘corrupt practice’ on the following grounds :

  • All the promises made cannot come under the term ‘freebies’. Such classification will be flawed.
  • Only the case where the candidate uses corrupt practices to influence the voter is covered by the RP Act.
  • The provisions related to corrupt practices are penal in nature and hence must be strictly interpreted.
  • The court said that only the parliament is vested with the power to term certain practices as corrupt not the SC.

However, the court asked the Election Commission [EC] to form guidelines to stop the abuse of taxpayers’ money. It also at the same time asked the legislature to frame policies in this regard. While the EC researched the electoral practices of other countries, it found out that countries like Bhutan, Mexico, and many other Western European countries have mechanisms to check misuse of poll promises.

These measures range from the legal enforceability of the manifesto to the manifesto being subjected to audits. Sadly neither the EC nor the legislature could form any concrete guidelines owing to the lack of consensus among political parties. This points out the apathy of the political parties to the issue of electoral reform. In 2016 the Madras High Court[2] came down heavily on the EC, the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs and the other respondents for their failure to curb this electoral practice. It scathingly remarked on the poor state of affairs in the following words:

“We will cook food for you in your residence”-party

“We will not only cook but also feed you”-opposite party

The present petition before the SC gives it the opportunity to revisit its 2013 ruling and expand the scope of section 123 of the RP Act to political parties.

The way forward

The issue of freebie politics is not only an issue of economic austerity, it is also related to the issue of political accountability and awareness. The opaqueness which shrouds the manifesto making process is the first thing that needs to be discarded. The ECI must consider taking  the following steps :

  • All the research work is undertaken and the minutes of the meetings held with various stakeholders be attached to the manifesto.
  • Mandating the release of the manifestoes at least 2 months prior to the elections.
  • Political parties should give a detailed account of how the financial aspect of implementing their poll promises would be taken care of. This could be further subjected to audits.
  • In case of failure to comply with the above requirements, parties may be made liable to pay fines to the election commission.

These measures will not only curb competitive freebie politics but also empower the voters to make an informed choice. An aware and active electorate is an asset to democracy and we must not miss the chance to do so. Besides the myth of ‘free lunch’ needs to be busted and as Will Leamon said, “sooner or later there will be a cost for the freebies”, we must realize the futility of the sops.

Author(s) Name: Harshita Gupta (National Law University, Jodhpur)


[1] S Subramaniam Balaji v. Govt of Tamil Nadu and Others, MANU/SC/0668/2013

[2] R Chandramohan v. The State Election Commissioner, Tamil Nadu Election Commission and others, MN/TN/3000/2007.