Decoding the problems with the ‘freebie’ debate
The fundamental issue lies in the word freebie, which has no clear definition, making it susceptible to misuse and selective targeting of welfare measures
Last month, a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) headed by Chief Justice NV Ramana began hearing a case about political parties offering “freebies” as part of their election manifestos. The SC bench called the offering of “freebies” a “serious problem,” with potentially damaging consequences for public debt and the exchequer. At the time of writing this piece, hearings are ongoing, with responses solicited from the government of India, the Election Commission, and other stakeholders.
There are, however, many problems with not only how this case is being heard but also the fact that the case is before the SC in the first place. To begin with, a political party’s manifesto is a bargain between the party and the voter. This does not mean, of course, that a manifesto can — for example — contain intimidatory messages or hate speech; however, promises about economic policies do not fall within any constitutionally prohibited category. A manifesto may contain promises that some might believe are economically unwise or unnecessary, but a judgment of the wisdom of future economic policy — at the end of the day — must rest with voters at the ballot box and not with the courts or other bodies.
More importantly, the fundamental problem lies in the word freebies, which has no clear definition and is susceptible to infinite manipulation. In previous hearings before the SC, a distinction has been drawn between (impermissible) freebies, welfare measures, and developmental measures. These categories, however, break down under even the most superficial examination. Consider, for example, universal basic income (UBI), a proposal that commands the support of many respected economists worldwide.
Given that the UBI essentially entails the government giving a certain amount of money to all its citizens periodically, does this fall under the category of a freebie or a welfare measure? What about a free, universal health service, such as the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom? If a political party promises that health care will be free, is that a freebie? What about free public transport, a policy that has both economic and environmental benefits and — specifically — has benefits when it comes to the mobility and workforce participation of women? Is that ruled out because it is a freebie?
In response, some have tried to draw a distinction between targeted programmes (such as the provision of food to below poverty line families on the one hand) and universal programmes (such as gas subsidy to all). However, this distinction is equally untenable. Across the world, there is a long-standing debate between economists and policymakers on the desirability of means-tested social programmes, as opposed to universal social programmes.
Means-tested programmes have been critiqued on the grounds that they are both unjust (leaving needy people out of the net) and inefficient (the economic cost of means-testing outweighs the cost of making the programme universal). One may come out on either side of the debate, but the point — once again — is that this is a debate to be had in a democracy and not something that can be imposed by judicial — or any other — fiat.
And finally, as people have already pointed out, the word freebies carries a pejorative connotation that makes one think of populist programmes, aimed at poor people (such as promising a free colour television to all), but does not seem to include corporate loan waivers or corporate tax relief. In technical terms, this comes from the public exchequer as much as a freebie does, and the only reason it is not called a freebie is political ideology. But political ideology is meant to be debated in the political arena and not in court.
There is a possibility that the SC might end up passing an order that (directly or indirectly) empowers a body such as the Election Commission to enforce the prohibition of freebies in election manifestos. This is troubling: As indicated here, the vague and subjective nature of the term freebie makes it ripe for abuse, especially in the dynamic and fraught context of an ongoing election.
One party’s proposals being greenlit as welfare measures while another’s struck off for being freebies amounts to exactly the kind of interference in the electoral process that mature democracies should seek to avoid.
For these reasons, when the hearings continue before the SC, one must hope for wiser counsel to prevail; when it comes to the integrity of the electoral process, there are far more urgent cases awaiting the SC’s attention, such as the case involving the legality of electoral bonds, which allow for unlimited, secret corporate funding to political parties. It is those cases that ought to be taken up immediately.
Gautam Bhatia is a Delhi-based advocate
The views expressed are personal