Freebies not a good practice, say experts

As Kejriwal announces welfare schemes ahead of polls, they say govts. increasingly taking this route

Updated - September 08, 2019 01:10 am IST

Published - September 08, 2019 01:09 am IST - New Delhi

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government’s consecutive announcements of four “freebies”, six months ahead of the Assembly elections in the Capital, may not be a “good practice” but incumbent governments are increasingly heading down the same road prior to contesting polls, said experts.

In the last three months, the AAP government has announced free rides for women in metro trains and buses, free electricity for people who use up to 200 units, waiver of arrears in water bills, and extension of free entrance coaching to all students whose annual family income is less than ₹8 lakh. Delhi is scheduled to go to polls in February, 2020.

“Since the normal development projects haven’t delivered, political parties have to resort to the so-called freebies before election time to win the loyalty and allegiance of the voter. If you have done work during five years, then you won’t have to resort to it,” said political analyst Neerja Chowdhury.

Long-term projects

“It is obviously to get votes like other parties. That doesn’t require much thinking. Ideally, it should not be close to the election and it is not a good practice,” she said further.

Manisha Priyam, Associate Professor, National University of Education Planning and Administration (NUEPA) said governments should focus on long-term projects. “It [incentives before elections] is not a good practice. Governments should focus on long-term policy making. And doing these short-terms measures show not having a vision to how you want to change things,” she said.

Freebies, according to Professor Sanjay Kumar, Director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) were neither a recent nor special phenomenon in India and were a usual offering from political parties in the run-up to elections.

“But every party, whether it is the Congress or the BJP, have all resorted to this. The failure of the parties and governments to deliver development to the ordinary people has led to the increased phenomenon of “freebies” and the parties have to resort to it to win over the voters,” Ms. Chowdhury said adding that, largely, the announcement of such schemes close to elections were not well thought out.

“It affects the way people vote. Sometimes, it works and sometimes it doesn’t work, depending whether other conditions are fine. People get a hope that life will be better. In Tamil Nadu, Chattisgarh and Odisha it has made a lot of difference,” said Ms. Chowdhury.

Does it work?

Mr. Kumar said that while they certainly do not have a negative effect on the chances of the political party at the helm of a government, the impact is directly proportional to how satisfied the average voter was with the entire tenure of the government in power.

“Freebies work only if the people are reasonably happy with the government announcing them on the heels of upcoming elections; at most, in my view, such announcements add around 2% to 3% vote share to the party’s poll prospects,” Professor Kumar said.

Ms. Priyam said they were a mixed bag. “People have better memories of whatever is announced close to the elections. But it is a risk, as if people feel that you have not done much during your term and now in the last minute you are giving them this, then that is going to backfire,” Ms. Priyam.

“Rational debates that should happen, does not happen and as it is done in a haste without legislative debate. These are meant to benefit incumbent governments,” Ms. Priyam.

“They [incumbent governments] make irresponsible expenditure before the election and it is the next government which will have to deal with it. The current government is not liable to it and this is not a good way to spent public money,” Ms. Priyam.

“Offering free rides is a clear freebie. That is looking at women as a vote bank. Certainly not all women need free rides,” she added.

Mr. Kumar said that while welfare schemes in the form of power and water bill waivers could be justified when viewed from the perspective of promoting the efficient utilisation of scarce public resources, free rides on public transport were a different ball game altogether.

“There is, simply, no justification for free rides; this is pure populism. While there is a very strong possibility of this particular announcement consolidating the AAP’s vote base among the economically challenged and underprivileged, it will further alienate the middle class which is already, seemingly, moving further away from the AAP’s support base,” he added.

Experts varied in their opinion on whether it will help Mr. Kejriwal in the next election. “It will help Kejriwal in Delhi. The poorer sections are still for him,” Ms. Chowdhury said.

Professor Kumar said that in Delhi, the slew of recent announcements made by the incumbent AAP government seemed to indicate the significance of the additional, though minuscule, vote share they could guarantee.

“As per the current political scenario in Delhi, one can safely assume, at this time, that the electoral contest is going to be a bipolar one between AAP and the BJP; AAP, seemingly on the edge, seems to believe that even a small increase in vote share can make a huge difference to its future prospects,” he argued.

Opposition attack

Both the Congress and the BJP have been attacking the AAP government over these schemes. Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari said the AAP government was “admitting its weakness with every successive freebie” being announced by it.

“We have been saying for long and continue to believe that AAP is aware of the fact that its prospects are dimming. It is scared of losing the upcoming elections... According to a recent survey, even their free power and water promises are not benefiting a majority of the populace, that is tenants, because neither power nor water connections are in their names,” he argued.

But, AAP Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam said that the schemes were not announced with an eye on the election.

“We had given 20 kilo litres of water free to every household [a month] within 15 days of coming to power in 2015 and we had also reduced electricity charges by half at that time itself. We have been doing these things,” Mr. Gautam said.

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