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Is ‘freebie’ a disease? What SC hears is out of sync with poor India’s logic of democracy

I agree that free electricity is a bad policy. But why do we get worked up only about policies that offer gifts to ordinary people? Why don't we worry about tax cuts and loan waivers to the super rich?

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I got an email from a senior friend in Assam. ‘Can we get the courts to intervene in preventing the annual devastation by floods?‘ He wrote with some hesitation, unsure of the forum and the likely outcome. Others, who approach me almost every other day, suffer from no such hesitation or doubt. They are sure that the country would be saved if only Prashant Bhushan could approach the court with a petition against Agnipath scheme, wheat export or ban on its export, or what have you. Mostly the causes are dear to my heart, but I am not clear why they think the problem or the solution lies in law. This is the price you pay for being friends with Prashant Bhushan, I tell myself, as I forward a few requests to him every week.

I have noticed a special category of these requests. These are my friends who want to reform India’s politics through legal intervention. In the 1960s through 80s, it used to be a plea to shift from the current first-past-the-post system to an electoral system of proportional representation. As electoral reforms gained centre stage, thanks to the Election Commission under T. N. Seshan amplifying these voices, the demands also grew: let us discourage ‘non-serious candidates’ from entering the electoral fray, let us prevent fragmentation of the verdict, let us stop criminals and corrupt leaders from being elected. Every now and then something new gets added to this list: let us prohibit any caste or communal appeal in elections, let us make election campaign promises legally binding, and so on.

Every time I hear such a proposal, I remember the joke about the man searching for his lost keys under a lamp-post. When asked ‘Where did you drop the keys?’ he points to a distant spot in the dark. ‘But then why are you looking for it here, under the lamp?’. ‘Because there is light here,’ he responds, innocently. Those who demand legal, judicial or institutional solutions to the ills of politics are often as clueless as that man. Or worse, as many of these interventions seek to privilege elite concerns over ordinary peoples’ needs and aspirations in a democracy.

Way back in 1996, I wrote a nasty article on thinking about electoral reforms “beyond middle class fantasies” (Seminar, No. 440, April 1996). Nothing changed, except that I lost the sympathy of a few friends. Later I wrote a more sober and longer version trying to spell out what, why and how of political reforms. But nothing has diminished the enthusiasm of those who want a final solution to all the political ills of the country through some legal solution or the other. 

We are a nation in search of a magical potion. We are in such a hurry that we don’t have the time to see if a disease exists and if it needs the kind of cure we are looking for. We are so desperate that we can’t waste time on checking the healer or the medicine. We want pakka solutions, here and now.

Also read: Pandemic slowed Tamil Nadu’s economic growth, now it can ill-afford poll freebie culture

A cure worse than the disease?

The latest in this saga is the plea to get the Supreme Court to stop political parties from promising or distributing “irrational freebies” during the election campaign. Or else, the Election Commission should take away their election symbol. The quality of the petition and the character of the petitioner need not detain us here. Suffice to say that Ashwini Upadhyay, a lawyer and a small-time BJP leader, has been in the news for many wrong reasons, including allegations of spreading communal hatred. Let us also not focus on the oddity of the Supreme Court, which has found no time electoral bonds case directly linked to political reforms, spending its precious time on such a petition. As per news reports, a bench led by CJI N.V. Ramana has asked the Union government to “take a stand” on whether freebies should continue or not and has fixed the next hearing for 3 August.

For a moment, let us assume that there is a widespread political disease called “freebies”. If so, anyone concerned about it should ask the following questions: How serious is this disease? Must it come up on top of my list of priorities? Is this curable and is the cure affordable? Or must I learn to live with it, if the cure is more costly than the disease? If it must be cured, who is the right doctor? And what is the correct medicine?

Now, even a minute’s reflection would tell you that depriving the political parties of their symbol, and thereby any chance of electoral success, is a medicine worse than the disease. No one should wield such an axe in a democracy, for that person or institution would become more powerful than the people. The Election Commission of India must never be given such powers, if we do not want it to lose its credibility more than it already has. The ECI’s affidavit to the Supreme Court is quite right to say that this is “a question that has to be decided by the voters”.

News reports say that the CJI-led bench considered if the Finance Commission can be tasked with this responsibility. The fact is that no institution can ever use such power in a non-arbitrary manner. Let us not forget that one of the most common methods of killing democracy is to disqualify political opponents from contesting elections under one pretext or another. Such a window does not exist in our country. It must never be opened.

Also read: Can Congress-BJP sway state polls with freebies or are they failing to read voters’ minds?

Is ‘freebie’ a disease? 

How else can the disease be cured, then? Before we press ahead with this question and search for another cure, let us entertain a thought: in a democracy, politics has to be a self-governing activity. You can safeguard a democracy from external threats, from momentary lapses, from individual whims, from majoritarian excesses. But you cannot safeguard a democracy from the people.

If “freebies” attract the people, you can educate them. You can mandate higher disclosure requirements so that the hollowness of these promises can be exposed. You can empower the media to interrogate these parties and leaders who make impossible promises. But if an overwhelming majority of the people prefers a course of action over a long term, there is nothing you can do about it, without shutting down democracy itself.

Finally, a thought about the ‘disease’ itself. Why do we think  offering ‘freebies’ is a problem? On the face of it, these policies are irresponsible, and lead to wasteful use of national economic resources. I for one agree that free electricity is a bad policy. But I also wonder why we get worked up only about those economic policies that offer irresponsible gifts to ordinary people? Why do we not worry about much bigger schemes that offer tax cuts, windfall gains and loan waivers to the super rich?

Could it be that the poor voters, who fall for these ‘irrational’ promises of ‘freebies’, are not so irrational? Perhaps they understand the logic of democracy and the impossibility of trickle down economics better than the experts. Perhaps they have realised that the normal functioning of ‘rational’ policies would not deliver much to them anyway, that they would get only as much as they can grab here and now. Since some direct and tangible goods, ‘freebies’, is all that they can realistically get and hold on to, that is what they vote for. Could it be that those who worry about freebies are what economist Amartya Sen once described as “rational fools”?

Yogendra Yadav is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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