Voters, if given a chance, will prefer to earn a dignified earning through welfare schemes such as MNREGA and create public assets in rural India. Freebies do not always decide the outcome of elections for political parties, the Supreme Court said on Wednesday.
A Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana said there have been instances of parties losing elections in spite of their promises of freebies.
“I don’t think voters are looking for freebies. Given an opportunity, they (voters) will opt for dignified earning. For example, MNREGA offered dignified earning and also created public assets in rural areas. So, I don’t think promises alone decide the outcome of elections... There are instances of parties not being elected despite their promises,” Chief Justice Ramana said.
The court was hearing a petition to curb the practice of offering or distributing “irrational freebies” at the cost of public money, especially in debt-ridden States during the run-up to elections.
The court said its primary concern is about “the right way of spending public money”. The court indicated that promises of freebies come at a cost to the public exchequer. “At the end of the day, we must say there is no free lunch,” the Bench observed.
The court is dealing with rival contentions raised in the case. On one side that freebies are a waste of public money and a sure road to economic doom for the country, while on the other hand that these are incentives and schemes to ensure public welfare.
“But the question is what exactly qualifies as a ‘valid promise’? Can promise of subsidy on power, seeds and fertilisers to small and marginal farmers, free healthcare and drinking water be considered as freebies? Can we treat promises of consumer products, electronics free of cost for all as a welfare measure?” the court asked.
‘Don’t confuse freebies with welfare schemes’
Chief Justice Ramana said freebies should not be confused with welfare schemes introduced by States. The CJI said Article 38 of the Constitution mandates that States should ensure the welfare of the people, “minimise inequalities in income and endeavor to eliminate inequalities in status, facilities and opportunities, not only amongst individuals but also amongst groups of people residing in different areas or engaged in different vocations”.
“You cannot prevent a political party or an individual from making promises that are aimed at fulfilling this constitutional mandate, if elected to power,” the Chief Justice observed.
Senior advocate P. Wilson, for Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, submitted that the Constitution empowered States to promulgate welfare schemes. The term ‘freebies’ cannot be interpreted to restrict States’ competence to provide welfare.
The court said parties involved, including the Centre, state parties should come up with their opinions and recommendations on the issue of freebies which is getting more “complicated”. The court posted the case next week.
In the previous hearing, senior advocate Vikas Singh, for petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, said States have ₹ 15 lakh crore debt. “Public money should not be misused by political parties whose only intention is to gain and retain power,” Mr. Singh said.
Senior advocate Arvind Datar, also for the petitioner side, said “giving laptops, TVs and gold chains cannot be to promote Directive Principles of State Policy”.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, agreed with the court’s proposal to form an expert body to recommend guidelines against freebies.
He said the “freebie culture” has been “elevated to an art” by some parties.
“Sometimes, elections are fought only on the promise of freebies. It is a dangerous situation if distribution of freebies is considered the only way to reach out to the electorate… We are leading the country to a disaster,” Mr. Mehta submitted.
The top law officer had even suggested that the proposed expert body should, along with representatives of national political parties, RBI, Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, etc, also have members of the industry. He pointed out that some of these sectors, like electricity, was already “stressed” by the distribution of freebies by certain state governments.
Chief Justice Ramana said the court is striving for a balance between the welfare requirements of the people, especially the poor and the downtrodden, and the need to avert a national economic loss through unbridled distribution of largesse by political parties to hold on to power.