Rajasthan / Madhya Pradesh- In a remarkable twist of political dynamics, the memory of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's stern criticism of the "Revadi" culture, targeting the distribution of freebies, remains vivid from the Gujarat elections last year. His pointed comments suggested the potential dangers such practices pose to the nation, warning of far-reaching economic consequences.
At the time, this critique was widely perceived as a direct dig at Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had announced an array of "freebies," including a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 to women and the assurance of round-the-clock power supply in the run-up to the Gujarat elections.
However, the current political landscape in the neighbouring states of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan reveals a striking shift in the narrative. While the echoes of Modi's admonition still linger, the BJP-led government under Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh has embarked on a path strikingly similar to the very practices the Prime Minister had cautioned against.
Shivraj Singh Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan have orchestrated a symphony of commitments and freebies in their respective states, setting the stage for a fervent electoral battle. The air is thick with the scent of forthcoming elections as these two stalwart leaders unleash a cascade of welfare schemes and electoral promises, aiming to capture the attention and favour of the electorate in their race towards the polls.
The surge in promises and payouts by both the state governments ahead of their respective assembly elections has not only captured public attention but also drawn the scrutiny of the highest judicial authority in the country. On October 6, the Supreme Court responded to a petition by issuing notices to the Centre, the Election Commission of India, and the state governments of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The bench, led by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud, directed these entities to provide explanations regarding the reasoning behind these pay outs. With a four-week deadline, the court has requested formal replies, signalling a significant judicial intervention and a quest for transparency and justification behind the electoral promises.
In a strategic and attention-grabbing move, the Congress-led government in Rajasthan has launched a blitz of guarantees and promises, painted in jumbo-sized letters across the front pages of major newspapers. The Gehlot administration appears to be sparing no effort in luring the electorate with an array of appealing assurances.
The headlines spotlight a plethora of commitments, promising a spectrum of benefits to the populace. The announcements range from extending financial aid of 10,000 rupees to the female heads of households, offering cow dung at an unprecedented rate of 2 rupees per kilogram, free distribution of laptops and tablets to first-year students in government colleges, and the assurance of English medium education for every child. Furthermore, the government guarantees free insurance coverage up to 15 lakh rupees and a return to the old pension scheme for government employees. The list of guarantees encompasses gas cylinders at the price of 500 rupees for approximately 1.04 crore families.
This orchestrated deluge of promises and freebies is a strategic move by the Congress government to secure the support and favour of the voters in Rajasthan. The campaign strategically combines a blend of financial support, educational provisions, and essential services, aiming to capture the attention and votes of the populace in the forthcoming state elections.
In Madhya Pradesh, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in an effort to address the welfare needs of eligible women, introduced the Ladli Behna Yojana. This scheme promises a monthly payment of Rs 1,250, signalling a significant boost from the initial Rs 1,000, with further intentions to eventually raise the support to an impressive Rs 3,000 per month.
Subsequently, Chouhan extended his commitment further by announcing an additional benefit for the beneficiaries of Ladli Behna Yojana (LBY) and the Ujjwala scheme. Under this initiative, he pledged to offer gas cylinders to recipients at a reduced cost of Rs 450 per month. This decision was supported by an allocated budget of Rs 800 crore from the state government, indicating a substantial financial commitment towards ensuring affordable access to essential resources for the beneficiaries of these welfare schemes.
The surge of welfare guarantees and promises in the political arena often sparks a polarized response among the public. While a section of society views these commitments as a crucial form of welfare support, ensuring basic necessities for the marginalized, another faction perceives these pledges as a potential threat to the sanctity of democratic processes. This group argues that the rampant distribution of promises could compromise the integrity of elections by rendering votes seemingly purchasable, thereby raising concerns about the overall health of democratic principles in the electoral framework.
Pooja Upadhyay, an employee in a private bank says, "The promises of freebies are a boon for us, the neglected section of society. Politicians forget us after they win, but these commitments bring hope. It's about time our needs are acknowledged and addressed, making elections more about us, the common people."
Government school teacher Gopal Singh do not see anything wrong in such commitments until they turn out to be fake promises. "Freebies aren't just handouts, they're acknowledgments of our struggles. Often, once elections are over, our concerns are shelved. These promises make us feel seen and offer essential support that's often missing from governance", he says.
Nishi Sharma, a retired employee states, "For too long, we've been side lined once the ballots are cast. The assurance of freebies doesn't just sway our votes; it signifies a government's accountability to its citizens. It's time our needs are prioritized beyond campaign rhetoric."
Meanwhile, detractors believe that widespread freebies can erode the essence of genuine electoral choices and undermine the principles of accountability and governance.
A retired civil servant desiring anonymity said, "While the allure of freebies is strong, it's crucial to consider the long-term impact on the economy. These pledges might provide immediate relief, but they can strain government finances and create dependency, hindering overall progress in the future. "
" Chief Minister Gehlot's approach towards showering the public with freebies seems like a short-sighted attempt to garner votes, lacking a sustainable vision for holistic development," senior lawyer Basant Kumar Bhatt puts in. He further adds that such practices risk distorting the democratic process, overshadowing real issues and long-term governance in the pursuit of momentary electoral gains."
Advocate Kanhaiyalal Menaria opined, "While it's tempting to accept freebies, we should question the motives behind these promises. They often seem more about winning votes than genuine welfare. There's a risk of these handouts being unsustainable and distracting from more crucial policy agendas."
The Supreme Court, in the 2013 S Subramaniam Balaji vs. Government of Tamil Nadu case, recognized the issues posed by unrealistic poll promises and freebies. However, the court clarified that such promises in election manifestos do not constitute "corrupt practice" under prevailing laws.
While the court directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines for election manifestos in consultation with political parties, it noted the absence of direct legislation governing their contents.
A retrospective glance at the landscape of Indian politics unveils the roots of the freebie culture, predominantly germinating in Tamil Nadu.
The inception of this trend can be traced back to the tenure of the late Kumaraswami Kamaraj, the chief minister of the erstwhile Madras state, who initiated a wave of incentives by introducing free education and meals for school students during his governance between 1954 and 1963. The baton of this culture was then carried forward in 1967 by CN Annadurai, the founder of Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK), who pledged to provide 4.5 kilograms of rice for just Re 1 if elected.
The trajectory of freebies took a more extravagant turn during the 2006 state election when the DMK elevated their offerings by presenting colour televisions to the electorate.
Subsequently, this practice spiralled into a competitive cycle, with political parties attempting to outdo each other by extending a spectrum of enticements, including gas stoves, cash distributions, land allotments, and even maternity aid.
In 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) secured victory in Delhi, championing a campaign promising free water and electricity to the people.
In a quirky turn of events in the 2021 Tamil Nadu elections, Thulam Saravanan, an Independent candidate from Madurai, facetiously vowed that voters who supported him would receive extravagant rewards ranging from helicopters and cars to Rs 1 crore per household, gold, household robots, 100-day lunar trips, and even artificial icebergs to keep his constituency's residents 'cool'.
Saravanan later clarified that his pledges were intended as satire, a parody aimed at the often extravagant promises made by politicians engaging in a one-upmanship of freebies.