Debate ignites over election freebies in India

Members of the Aam Aadmi Party participate in a bike rally in Bangalore, India, on Aug 10, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW DELHI - In the western state of Gujarat, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is trying to make inroads into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's home state with promises of monthly allowances and free electricity.

If voted in during elections expected later this year, it has pledged to give women 1,000 rupees (S$17) a month, and 3,000 rupees to unemployed youth. It has also dangled a sweetener of 300 units of free electricity to every household.

AAP is already offering electricity subsidies in Delhi, where the first 200 units are free, and in Punjab where the first 300 units are free.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), amid concerns that AAP will gain ground in Gujarat, has criticised the promise, further opening up a debate on the ethics of promising freebies in the run-up to elections.

Lawyer and BJP member Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay filed a petition to the Supreme Court in January, seeking court intervention to regulate the distribution of freebies during elections. The court is considering setting up a committee to look into the issue.

"We cannot prevent political parties from making promises. The question is what constitutes right promises. Can we describe the promise of free education as a freebie? Can free drinking water, minimum essential units of power etc, be described as freebies?" said the Supreme Court bench on Wednesday, according to the Indian media reports.

"Can consumer products and free electronics be described as welfare? The concern right now is what is the right way of spending public money."

India has a culture of election freebies, where political parties promise everything from goodies like laptops and mixer grinders to electricity subsidies in the run-up to state or federal elections.

In the southern state of Tamil Nadu, for instance, where political freebies are popular, parties have showered voters with smartphones, laptops, free cable and Wi-Fi, and even gold.

In the 2021 elections, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, which lost to the southern Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party, offered free washing machines and solar gas stoves to the poor. Making good on its promise, DMK has cut petrol prices by five rupees and diesel by four rupees.

Mr Modi has said there is a need to remove this freebie "culture" from India.

His party has opposed freebies, even though in the Uttar Pradesh state election this year, which BJP won, it promised two wheeler scooters for women and free electricity for farmers.

A host of other parties from Congress to DMK, on the other hand, have defended schemes like free electricity or other giveaways, arguing it ultimately helps poor households.

The Aam Aadmi Party has promised payouts to women and unemployed youth, as well as free electricity, to voters in Gujarat. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The freebies culture, unchecked for many years, has also come under scrutiny as two years of the Covid-19 pandemic have put pressure on the coffers of many states.

According to a Times of India report, expenditure on freebies range from 0.1 per cent to 2.7 per cent of gross state domestic product for states. Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Punjab had the highest subsidy bills.

Still, experts noted that promises of freebies did not guarantee votes.

"Studies have shown that last minute distribution of freebies has not guaranteed victory. That shows the maturity of voters," said Dr Sandeep Shastri, vice-chancellor of Jagran Lakecity University.

"I think the coronavirus pandemic has made us realise that the state is not just a regulator for many sections of society but also a facilitator. Reaching out to people with basic amenities and the vaccination drive were not freebies - these are essentials."

He noted that even Western societies were giving cash to people.

"You need to look at the socioeconomic context when deciding what is a legitimate right to get from the state. If people had the capacity to pay a certain amount for electricity and you are not charging them, then it's a freebie."

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