Freebies are items that are provided without charge or cost. In Indian politics, it has been rampant. During elections, it is a well-known and widespread practice. Freebies are one of the most profitable ways for political parties to entice voters.
The origins of freebie culture in India can be traced back to Tamil Nadu politics. Following that, many political parties adopted this as one of their doctrines for wooing voters.
- The recent Uttar Pradesh elections saw parties offering freebies that include free gas cylinders, a kilo of ghee, free rations for five years and so on. Other freebies include:
- An ‘urban employment guarantee’,
- To provide at least one job or self-employment opportunity to each household.
- All small and marginal farmers with less than two acres of land will get two bags of DAP fertilizer, five bags of urea, electricity for irrigation and interest-free loans.
- In Punjab, a political party has promised free medicines, free parking, pension increases, free education in primary schools and no tax on electricity bills.
- In the run-up to the recently held Assembly Elections, a party had promised to provide free electricity up to 300 units to the people of Punjab.
- The government in Delhi offered free or heavily subsidized electricity, free water, free bus rides for women, free Wi-Fi, full reimbursement of hospitalization expenses to ensure winning a second term.
Issues associated with Freebie Politics:
- Burden on Taxpayers: These freebies announced during elections are not coming from the pockets of any political parties but from the taxpayers including the beneficiaries.
- Rise in the combined fiscal deficit of states: According to the Reserve Bank of India, the combined fiscal deficit of all the states rose from 1.93 per cent in 2011-12 to 3.5 per cent in 2016-17. In such conditions, providing freebies can be fiscally disastrous.
- High debts of States: According to a CRISIL report, most states are in precarious debt situations, which will constrain their ability to spend on capital expenditure. The lofty promises made by political parties at the polls can manifest in a host of problems—bad roads, bleeding discoms, poor public infrastructure, and higher taxes.
- Leading to Corruption: Freebies culture paves the way to corrupt practice. Involvement of the middle man to get those freebies cannot be avoided. There are leakages and even mismanagement or outright corruption in many schemes that started as freebies.
- Larger Impact: The culture of excessive electoral sops for influencing voter preferences also undermines job creation and growth while denting the quality of India’s manufacturing and hurting environmentally sustainable aspirations.
- Freebie politics is increasingly appealing to governments across the political spectrum. The larger issue is that freebie politics and economics can cause serious economic problems.
- While there is a need to distinguish merit and public goods with larger benefits, such as the public distribution system, employment guarantee schemes, and increased support for education and health, there is also a need to distinguish these from other perks that are part of the current political narrative.