India’s evolving electoral landscape: Balancing promises and prudent governance

Financial Express, November 9, 2023 

By Pradeep S Mehta & Shivendra Shekhawat

In the thriving Indian democracy, where the electorate wields remarkable influence, political parties have long harnessed the art of dazzling voters with a captivating array of electoral incentives. These incentives, classified into two categories, have been a cornerstone of political strategy: the enticing pre-election pledges and the lavish post-election bestowal of goods and services. Cash and liquor have long been the age-old darlings of this theatrical spectacle, but as the winds of change sweep across the political landscape, a captivating evolution in the world of electoral giveaways unfolds.

The extravagant pre-election pledges doled out by political parties, potentially draining the hard-earned money of taxpayers, only exacerbate the financial strain on a burdened government. The economic repercussions of these actions resonate far and wide, capturing the collective attention and anxiety of the nation. In a country grappling with formidable fiscal hurdles, the imperative of prudent public expenditure looms large, heightening the stakes of this national predicament.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh raises a valid concern when he asks, “From whose pockets are these freebies paid for?” The former Chief Justice of India N V Raman highlighted the challenge by noting, “These days everyone wants freebies. Not a single political party will allow freebies to be taken away… We take the side of the ordinary people, the downtrodden. Their welfare has to be taken care of. We are not just looking at this as another problem during election time… We are looking at the national economic well-being.”

In response to a plea alleging the distribution of pre-election freebies, in Assembly polls of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the Supreme Court issued notices to the respective state governments, the Centre, and the Election Commission. The petitioner contends that such pre-election freebies are not in the public interest and place an undue burden on taxpayers already grappling with the states’ debt burdens. However, voters appear to be growing wiser, recognising the economic constraints that the government faces. Sukhdev Singh Gill, a surgeon from Ludhiana, remarked, “Sabko maloom hai yeh nahi hona. Sarkar ke paas paise hi nahin hai” (Everyone knows this can’t happen. The government simply does not have the funds).

Chief election commissioner Rajiv Kumar said that the freebies announced by political parties and state governments have a ‘tadka’ of populism, and it is difficult for those who win polls to either implement or stop this practice. In the state of Chhattisgarh, then CM Raman Singh made an ambitious promise to provide a smartphone to every household. He used government-issued devices as a campaigning tool. The phones were equipped with campaign apps featuring Singh and PM Narendra Modi, raising concerns about the misuse of state resources for electoral gains.

While the state government claimed recipients used phones for various purposes, including communication and browsing, many have since expressed dissatisfaction over poor battery life, app crashes, and limited data allocations. In response, many citizens are calling for more meaningful improvements in their lives, like jobs, higher wages and better facilities. The disparity between the promises and the needs of the people is evident, highlighting the need for responsible governance.

Meanwhile, in Rajasthan, CM Ashok Gehlot has launched “Vision 2030” to transform the state, with PM Modi offering support despite belonging to a opposing party. The upcoming elections in the state present a formidable challenge for the BJP, with the survival of the Indian National Congress at stake. Voters in Rajasthan remain undecided, with some believing that government benefits have reached them, and others expressing concerns about unmet crop insurance claims and allegations of corruption among elected representatives and government functionaries. This underscores the complex dynamics at play in Indian elections.

India’s freebie culture has become a significant part of the political landscape, with parties making extravagant promises to secure votes. However, the impact of these promises on India’s economic well-being and the fairness of its elections is a matter of increasing concern. The ongoing debate in the SC and the broader discourse on responsible governance indicate the challenges and complexities of democracy in India. It is crucial to strike a balance between political populism and the prudent management of public funds, ensuring that the welfare of the people remains at the forefront of policy. Long ago, the erudite PM and CM of undivided Andhra Pradesh PV Narasimha Rao had said that freebies do not really work in favour of parties, but many other factors determine the voting behaviour.

Some sitting members of parliament (MPs) are participating in the Rajasthan state assembly elections without resigning from their parliamentary positions. The question arises: is this morally justifiable, or should they retain their parliamentary seats regardless of the outcome in the state assembly elections?

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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