The current debate, sparked off by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on 'freebies' promised by political parties during elections (and awarded by state governments when they come to power), has spread across our political space like wildfire. This month, the Supreme Court declared that the "promise of irrational freebies is a serious issue" and asked the Election Commission for its comments on the matter (the EC has rightly responded that it would not be appropriate for them to express an opinion). The court also asked the Union government to constitute a panel to study the issue.
Why have freebies, a staple of political life, suddenly become a subject of national debate? Mr Modi did not spell out his case for escalating the problem to a burning issue, but there are several obvious concerns, not least the fiscal and budgetary implications of handouts, which the Reserve Bank flagged in June. There is also the moral question of whether promises made by political parties during elections are like bribes to voters to purchase votes. While Kerala has been relatively immune, some of our neighbouring states have notoriously witnessed the distribution of free laptops, colour televisions, kitchen grinders and even gold to voters. In one state the free distribution of saris at election time led to a stampede in which two women died. But is this what the PM really had in mind?
I am not sure, because the Modi Government has itself boasted of its extensive provision of welfare benefits, from toilets in people’s homes to gas cylinders for kitchens, which it would certainly not wish to dismiss as 'freebies'. In fact, the ruling party has gone out of its way to claim credit for such welfare schemes, which when the UPA was in power it would have dismissed as unaffordable “handouts”. Remember Mr Modi’s speech assailing the MNREGA scheme as a monument to the UPA’s failures? Today the BJP boasts of having poured more money into the scheme.
Indeed, where the UPA government, with its approach of creating rights-based “entitlements” for citizens, enshrined welfare as a form of citizen empowerment, the NDA has preferred to confer benefits rather than rights – toilets, gas cylinders, housing, electricity, rations, cash transfers and the like – and then remind voters that they need to be grateful for these. They have reduced citizens into what the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party calls “labharthis”, or beneficiaries, of the state. When BJP canvassers ask voters to show their gratitude to PM Modi for these benefits, what is the moral difference between a “welfare scheme” and a “freebie”?
When a political party promises it will institute a specific welfare scheme if elected, is that a “freebie”? If such promises are to be disallowed, it would deprive every political party of its crucial planks. As my Congress colleague Praveen Chakravarty pointed out recently, the BJP promised farm loan waivers for the 2017 UP elections, the Congress promised higher procurement prices during the 2018 Chhattisgarh elections, TRS promised two-bedroom houses during the 2018 Telangana elections, and AAP promised free power for the 2022 Punjab elections. These were integral to the approach to governance they were promising voters they would deliver if elected. How can the PM, or for that matter the Supreme Court, say this is wrong, if such welfare is the party’s policy?
Drawing a distinction between a 'freebie' (bad) and a 'welfare project’ (good) in such a context is meaningless hair-splitting.
A lot of our political life reflects the stark reality that our democracy functions in a poor country where the majority of voters still live below the World Bank’s poverty line of two dollars a day, and the nature of our politics is bound to reflect that. No government, state or central, has been able to escape the responsibility of providing welfare; indeed, it is usually judged by its effectiveness in doing so. Drawing a distinction between a 'freebie' (bad) and a 'welfare project’ (good) in such a context is meaningless hair-splitting. And for the Supreme Court or even the Reserve Bank to seek to outlaw either is an unacceptable transgression into politics. Of course, welfare cannot be given beyond a state’s capacity to bear its costs. That is where responsible governance comes in. But the issue is not of whether freebies may be promised or given, but how much welfare is affordable – and drawing a line when political generosity topples over into fiscal profligacy.
The real assumption of our Prime Minister thus seems to be that when he hands out something it is welfare, and when others, especially from Opposition parties, do so it is a 'freebie'. I’m afraid that’s not an argument that anyone else can accept. And as the Opposition has been pointing out, aren’t Mr Modi’s giveaways to corporates in the form of lower taxes, loan waivers and other benefits the biggest freebies of all?
Tailpiece: In last week’s tailpiece on Christian nationalists, there were a number of inadvertent omissions to which readers have rightly drawn my attention. Two were truly unforgivable because they are names I often mention in my own speeches: the legendary Accamma Cherian, the doughty woman nationalist heroine whose famous display of valour at a protest rally she led in October 1938 shamed the police chief into withdrawing his order to shoot, and the other a nationalist I knew personally in his last years, K E Mammen. The ascetic Gandhian Mammen, who was already a grand old man nearing 90 when I met him at a YMCA event in Thiruvananthapuram, rather dramatically appealed to me on bended knee to enter politics, and encouraged me throughout when I did so. I stayed in touch with him till the end, visiting him during his last hospital sojourn and paying tribute at his gravesite. I did not mean to omit him.
It has also been pointed out to me that several leading Christian freedom fighters of former Travancore hailed from the Karippaparambil family: not just Accamma Cherian herself but also her sister Rosamma Punnose and their brothers and cousins, K J Thomas and K T Thomas of the same family. My apologies to any who felt offended by these inadvertent omissions, attributable solely to my limited time and space. What this underscores, though, is my central message, that every community has nationalists to boast of, and Kerala’s Christians did as much for our freedom struggle as anyone.