Home / Opinion / Views /  Let voters decide what state outlays they want

Just a few months ago, India’s Election Commission (EC) had drawn a clear line in the sand. Asked for its views by the Supreme Court on the “freebies" that political parties promise voters, the EC said it was not its business to regulate manifesto promises or caution against reckless fiscal commitments. “Such an action, without enabling provisions in the law, would be an overreach of powers," the poll panel said. It was absolutely right. In August, it again told the SC that it would be inappropriate for the EC, a constitutional authority, to be part of any expert committee on the issue. And so its sharp reversal of stance on Tuesday is both mysterious and worrying. The EC has written to Indian political parties, suggesting that if they make promises during election campaigns, they must also spell out how they will find the money to fulfil them; and what effect such spending would have on the debt burden of the state or Centre. The Model Code of Conduct for political parties might even be amended to make such disclosures mandatory.

The poll panel’s credibility as an institution that conducts free and fair elections in India hinges on its neutrality—its ability to stay above the fray. Its U-turn on the freebie debate is a disquieting let-down. For starters, the EC’s mandate does not extend to calling into judgement the fiscal quality of pledges made on campaign trails. That is for voters to assess. At the heart of universal franchise is the trust vested in citizens and their power to hold parties accountable. Moreover, what one voter calls a giveaway may be an investment in a desirable outcome to another. This is not something a poll panel should try to second-guess, especially without a consensus on what qualifies as a freebie outlay.

In politics, the label is subjectively applied, as we saw in recent divisions of opinion after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cautioned voters against endorsing a culture of “handouts" and argued that true social justice comes from building expressways, airports and the like. Soon after, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a petition asking for action against political parties that promised ‘freebies’, though it was unclear what law stood violated. Opposition parties, from the Aam Aadmi Party to the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam and Congress, have disputed the ruling party’s formulation of worthy outlays, pointing out that state investment in human welfare, particularly health and education, multiplies opportunities and well-being. Our pandemic experience also counsels against hard rules for fiscal deficits and specific spending. The covid crisis forced the Centre to go beyond its fiscal limits, with waivers sought in escape clauses. Flexibility has its value.

While the idea of nudging political parties to offer sketch budgets may seem reasonable, for us to reach a stage seen in the US and UK, it needs to be an electorate demand. Trying to enforce it via electoral rules would risk conflicts that would lose the EC credibility. The political context of the country’s debate is such that any freebie-related rule revision will likely be taken as a reflection of the ruling party’s position. Given the drift of the discourse that followed Modi’s remarks on “revdi" (a sesame sweet) giveaways, public funds used as an incentive for private businesses seem less likely to require an explanation than the small but easily identified sops aimed at crowds that poll speeches have. Parties should not find welfare spending harder to talk about than other kinds. Let voters work out their outlay preferences for themselves.

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