The Supreme Court of India asked the Election Commission to frame guidelines regulating ‘freebies’ so as to enable free and fair elections. This is based on a premise that promising benefits such as subsidised food grains, scholarships, laptops or other materials constitute a bribe to voters, leading to unfair electoral practices.
I believe that the petitioner has identified an important problem that politicians are often able to get away with minimal promises by giving private benefits that excite people, and in the process they are able to divert attention away from their performance in a large array of other issues. I also believe that private benefits such as these enable politicians to get away from discussing pressing public challenges such as managing our watershed, to take just one example. While I do want a shift in our democratic priorities, I have problems with regulating it at the level of an election manifesto.
A part of my opposition to this comes from an general understanding of what constitutes a freebie. If we were to make a list of all the things that are referred to as freebies in the media, most of will pertains to things that are given to poor people. The only real exceptions I have seen are loan waivers and free electricity to farmers that tend to reach the richer among the lot. Interestingly, despite the fact that very large volumes of coal were given free to corporations, no one ever talked about it as a freebie. Valuable spectrum allocated much under par did not get called a freebie either. The same can be said of all kinds of natural resources, including land that is forcibly acquired from poor people and redistributed to the rich at throwaway prices. The list of large-scale private benefits to a few can go on and on, but we tend to focus on the little that is given to many. I can never support an idea that starts with such a skewed understanding.
Assuming that we can broad-base and rationalise our understanding of what constitutes a freebie, there is still a problem of regulating it at the level of an election manifesto. Putting something in the manifesto at least makes it transparent, open to dialogue and to democratic testing. Focussing on just the manifesto would also ignore more damaging promises made to powerful interests that would never make it to a manifesto. Thus, targeting the manifesto would be imperfect and regressive. It would be much better to demand that the policy processes of an elected government be transparent, and to require governments to provide detailed explanations of costs and benefits of any large scale decision along with a discussion of who the intended beneficiaries are.
Does that mean that election promises should go completely unregulated? I think not. I agree with the concern that politicians often get away with one week of performance by delivering a few private benefits in a very cynical manner, and that it distorts democratic priorities. That needs addressing. But I believe that addressing it should come only through people’s engagement in the democratic process.
After all, the problem of distorted priorities does not lie only with people running for an office. They will have to respond if people do their democratic duty by framing our common problems and forcing the aspirants to office to respond. We cannot contract away all public problems to politicians. If we can ignore what will affect all of us, there is little merit in expecting politicians to do so. If we as citizens and the civil society do our job in framing problems, there is a much better likelihood that politicians will be forced to respond to it by promising things that are collectively valued instead of cynically giving private benefits. That to me is the best way of regulating cynical use of private benefits in elections.