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Election Freebies: RECKLESS POLITICAL MARKETING, By Dr. S. Saraswathi, 17 July, 2013 Print E-mail

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New Delhi, 17 July 2013                                                        

Election Freebies


By Dr. S. Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The maxim ‘well begun is half done’ could well be apportioned to the Supreme Court. It has taken the first step and left the next to the Election Commission. More importantly, it has unwittingly put the focus on how the voter is being hoodwinked by political parties with freebies, elections after election. Short-term gains against long-term.


Recently, a bench of the apex court categorically stated: “Freebies shake the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”. It directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines to govern the contents of election manifestos in consultation with all recognized political parties. And, dismissed a petition challenging the offer of freebies such as color TVs, mixies and grinders, fans, etc., in the election manifesto of the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu.


The Bench considered this as an important matter obviously in view of the coming elections in many States and the Lok Sabha. The need for a separate law on election manifestos of political parties is stressed in the judgement as promises of free goods have almost taken precedence over policies in public appeal.


The court has no jurisdiction to ban altogether promises of free materials and services which are considered indispensable for life including health, education, and general knowledge. It has acknowledged that human life is not just physical existence requiring only food, clothing, and shelter.


It also held that offer of freebies cannot come under “corrupt practices”, or “electoral offences” under the Representation of People’s Act. But, it admitted that it would “undoubtedly influence all people” and would affect “the level-playing field” among contesting parties and candidates.


Indeed, the verdict has a mixed message that may be interpreted as both pro and anti-freebies. Insofar as the Election Commission is concerned, it has been given a difficult job of providing guidelines. Will it be able to deliver and if so how soon?


It must keep in mind that the offer of freebies is part of populist politics going strong in all States. Regional parties directly offer household goods and national parties clothe them in the garb of programmes such as loan waivers. Regrettably, a mistaken impression has been created that populism is a mark of democracy and empowerment of the poor and the marginalized.


Free TV is a popular item offered by many parties; so also cycles and laptops. The list is expanding from election to election and copied from Party to Party such that manifestos have become booklets of freebies!  Starting in Tamil Nadu with the offer of Rs one per measure of rice by CN Annadurai way back in 1967, we have reached a stage where freebies and the percentage of votes polled are related.    


The AIADMK in the last Assembly elections promised ½ sovereign gold and cash assistance of Rs 25,000 to women getting married in BPL families.  The offer is doubled for diploma holders and graduates. Land extending to 3 cents for construction of homes, and houses in300 sq.ft were offered to BPL families.


The TDP in the last Lok Sabha election offered a unique cash transfer scheme for vulnerable sections – Rs 2,000 for the poorest of the poor, Rs.1,500 for the poor, and Rs. 1,000 for middle class families per month.  Monthly unemployment allowance of Rs. 1,000 per month to unemployed youth and housing for all eligible poor were added attractions offered to the voters.


Both the BJP and SP promised milch cows to every BPL family in Uttar Pradesh in the last Assembly elections. In fact, the SP stumped everyone with its offer of free laptops to students. In fact, all parties are specializing in the art of building and sustaining vote banks. They cultivate specific categories of voters based on caste, economic status, gender etc., with special offers.


Election manifestos are the common tools of political marketing which is the process of buying support of voters for a party and candidates. Business marketing principles and methods are used by political organizations to win support. Lobbying by professional lobbyists and interest groups informally attached to political parties increasingly adopt business management techniques in electioneering.  


It is said that parties and some individual leaders employ established advertisement agencies to push their image. There is nothing wrong in this.  However, people must be shrewd enough to separate the chaff.


Whether one likes to use the term “political marketing” or not, cash and goods play a major role in building and promoting good relationship of “give and take” between contestants and the voters. Scandalous transactions linking political leaders that have come to light are said to be an outcome of the electoral system, which gives money power a decisive role in winning elections.


Freebies are products sold by parties and candidates in this election market with the expectation that voters would purchase them by paying their votes which are non-monetary. At the same time, voters sell their votes which have value and candidates buy them by paying free goods. This directly promotes an unhealthy competition among candidates and parties and increases the chances of those offering the highest price for the votes. 


Importantly, in this transaction, votes are exchanged for private goods in contrast with public goods which benefit all like educational institutions, hospitals, dams, railway lines, etc. Every article freely distributed cuts into the funds available for common goods and services.


Though the promise of freebies in manifestos does not fall under “corrupt practice” as defined under the RPA, it cannot be denied that it is akin to “bribery” in the normal sense of the word.


The poor do not realize that freebies are not permanent or long-term solution to their poverty. What they need is the capacity to acquire these goods by themselves. The facilities and the atmosphere to build that capacity must be provided by those coming to power. Neither the donors nor the recipients are willing to accept that public goods are far more valuable than private goods. 


Political parties have failed in their function of providing political education to the people. This is an inevitable result of elevating money power and muscle power as the deciding factors in elections. A substantial percentage of legislators themselves need political education to understand that governance is not just winning elections.


Instances are not wanting where the freebies (including even rice not to speak of laptops) are sold by the recipients and go back to the open market.  Less said about the scope for criminal nexus between the concerned actors in this political market the better. At all points – production, acquisition, and distribution – there is scope for illegal money-making.


Vote buying is considered a derogatory undemocratic practice. It is banned in the US. But, it goes on in various forms quite openly in many countries. Importantly, distribution of freebies before elections is different from promises to be discharged if a party is voted to power. The former is illegal in India, but promises in manifestos to targeted groups are not.


Indian elections are certainly not a purely vote-buying market. So far, so good. But, we cannot remain complacent. The tendency for reckless political marketing that is growing fast must be addressed immediately. Promises of   freebies in manifestos are entering the zone of bad economics, divisive politics, and unethical civic education. Therefore, their limits and terms have to be prescribed and followed. Sooner, the better. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)




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