September 04, 2022

Hypocrisy about Freebies

Hypocrisy about Freebies

ON the last day of his tenure as chief justice on August 26, Justice Ramana referred the pleas on political parties promising freebies to a three-judge bench to be decided by the new chief justice of India.  The Supreme Court, getting into the freebies issue, is an example of misplaced priorities and entering into an area which is not the business of the higher judiciary.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi stoked the issue of freebies when he derided the ‘revdi’ culture and blamed the opposition for it in a public meeting in July.  A public interest litigation petition was filed by a Delhi BJP leader calling for a review of an earlier Supreme Court judgment which had ruled out bringing promises by a political party before elections within the purview of a corrupt practice under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act. 

The Supreme Court promptly took up the hearing of the petition by a bench headed by Chief Justice Ramana.  The court heard arguments by the petitioner and counter arguments. In the process, it brought to the fore the confused and muddled thinking on the issue of political parties making promises to the people during election time. 

This was also reflected in some of the remarks made by Justice Ramana in the course of the hearings.  On the one hand, Justice Ramana stated that freebies should not be confused with genuine welfare measures. He also stated that what welfare schemes are to be initiated is the prerogative of the political parties and the executive.  On the other, Justice Ramana spoke about “irrational freebies” without clarifying what the criteria is for defining irrational freebies.

At one stage, the bench talked of setting up of an expert committee to go into the matter, but then paused the decision after hearing about the problems and complexities that would face such a committee.

The hypocritical intent behind Narendra Modi raising the freebie issue is clear.  It is targeted at the various welfare schemes and direct cash transfers being made by various state governments.  While the prime minister considers all the central schemes as genuine welfare measures, similar welfare schemes undertaken by the opposition state governments are to be condemned as freebies.  Under the PM Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, Rs 6,000 is transferred every year to farmers owning land.  This is not a freebie but similar schemes implemented by the Telangana, Andhra Pradesh or Odisha governments would be branded as freebies. The prime minister wants to monopolise all welfare schemes under the auspices of the centre and expects the state governments only to implement these schemes and the beneficiaries thereof should be indebted to the centre.

The prime minister, obviously, does not consider tax cuts and loan waivers for the corporates or subsidies for the rich, as freebies. As the DMK in its written submission to the court pointed out, during the first three years of the Modi government (2014-17), Rs 72,000 crore loans of the Adani group had been written off and in the past five years (2017-22), public sector banks had written off loans worth Rs 7.27 lakh crore. It goes on to ask: “Are these not freebies for corporates?  What is the justification for wanting to prevent welfare measures like food, education and travel subsidies for the poor and downtrodden but continuing to give large tax breaks for corporates?”

The neo-liberal nostrum that subsidies for food, fertilizer, electricity and such like are all wasteful of public resources and are freebies, is the prevailing wisdom.  Instead of transfers to the working people, there should be transfers to big capitalists to promote growth. 

Another angle of attack on “freebies” is that it is fiscally irresponsible. Such a view is also reflected in the order of the Ramana-led bench of the Supreme Court referring the matter for further consideration by a three-member bench, where it is stated: “The worries raised by the petitioner that under the guise of welfare, fiscal responsibility is dispensed with, must also be considered”. 

A deliberate attempt is also being made to confuse the welfare measures promised in the election manifesto of a party with the corrupt practice during elections of distributing cash to voters, free saris or other consumer goods.  It is the latter which should be put down stringently. 

There is no need whatsoever for the Supreme Court to deliberate upon and decide whether election promises made by political parties are freebies or not. This issue pertains purely to the realm of the political. In a democracy, political parties are free to set out their platform and promises in the election manifesto. It is for the people to judge them, accept or reject them. It is the prerogative of a political party which wins the election to implement the promises it has made to the people with regard to welfare measures.

The attack on the so-called freebies is actually an attack on the right to food, education, health and all other public goods which contribute to the welfare of the people and which the State has a responsibility to provide for. 


(August 31, 2022)