How To Woo Voters

Politics of Freebies

Sukanta Sarkar

Donation, Gift, Charity! The use of these words has always been pronounced with considerable reverence and respect. From the kings to the zamindars, many rich people have gained fame by donating to people personally and socially at different times. In Bengal, in the distant past, numerous philanthropic institutions like schools, libraries, hospitals were established on the basis of private donations. Even today many schools and hospitals in almost all districts of the state including Kolkata, Howrah, Hooghly, two 24 Parganas bear this testimony. It would be very wrong to think that only a section of wealthy Bengalis came forward in all these activities. Several non-Bengali individuals and families living in Bengal have also come forward to build various philanthropic institutions in different times. A culture of donation-charity has existed for ages. Not only in Bengal, this culture existed and exists almost everywhere in the country. But, over the decades, this issue has reached a different level. Earlier, in return for charity, there was no desire for anything in return other than the reputation of the donor. And in many cases, the donor did not even bother with all that. He or they thought it was a duty or responsibility to their subjects and subsequently to society. But, the image of charity in this country started to change from the1960s due to political reasons. It started to change, it is better to say, donation and charity started to be used politically. Now donation is used to expand political power. It may be called political charity.

It first started in South India. But gradually it spread across India. In the past few decades, when the elections came, various national level parties, small and regional parties as well to seize power, rather than talking about new policies, in exchange for the support of the voters, they gave voters personal and family items such as motorcycles, refrigerators, Colour TVs, laptops, mobile phones, bicycles etc and promised to deliver various ‘developmental projects’ assuring jobs to the unemployed. This trend has grown exponentially in recent years as almost all political parties resort to politics of ‘charity’. All, rich and poor are swayed by free gift culture.

In the 70s, 80s and 90s many political parties were accused of giving money directly to the voters to win votes in various constituencies, especially in villages of the Hindi belt. Many say that such unethical activities are also done in some states of the South to get the support of the voters. In the last few years, the tendency of freebies or ‘Khayrati politics’ has increased throughout the country. Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party or AAP won the Delhi assembly polls in 2015 with the slogan 'PaniMaaf, Bijli Haaf'. Following the same path, AAP won power in the Punjab assembly elections a couple of years ago, but recently this slogan of AAP did not work at all in the Gujarat assembly polls. In order to keep the pre-poll promises after coming to power, various state governments increased the amount of subsidy (equivalent to charity) in various areas. According to a Reserve Bank report last year, Jharkhand, Odisha, Kerala, Telangana and Uttar Pradesh are the top 5 states in terms of huge subsidy hikes in the last 3 years. Issues like loan waiver, public transport, electricity bill waiver and farm loan waiver have been considered by the country's apex bank as Khayrati or freebies.

Before and after every election, no government bothers about the initiative to fulfil the 'Khayrati' as promised by the various ruling parties, even though there is criticism in the media and society. The opposition political parties also do not show interest in protesting in that way. Even the right-wing or moderate parties and the left-wing parties of the country are not seen to protest in that way. Electoral compulsion is also a major obstacle for parliamentary left parties to strongly oppose Khayrati politics. At the national and regional levels, this Khayrati is one of the main electoral tools of many of the regional parties with whom they often make electoral alliances. Apart from that the parliamentary left parties in this country are also a bit confused about electioneering and they don't have a clear policy on it.

According to leftist philosophy it is the responsibility of the state to meet all the basic needs of the citizens, starting from food, clothing, housing, health, education. However, in a socialist system, the state should never take the responsibility of providing the citizens with personal consumables like TV, fridge, air conditioner, mobile phone, car or laptop. And all citizens will pay for their labour from the wages earned; this is the diagnosis of the socialist system. There was and still is much debate about whether it is good or bad. There is an apparent misconception among many about the socialist system, that in socialism everything is free. But that's not the case at all. Although the state is responsible for subsidising some of the daily and basic goods and services, the labour of the citizens in various services including agriculture is also one of the conditions of the socialist system. Socialist system does not mean giving dole. In the name of socialism, the whole world is seeing the pathetic condition of those countries which have done the dole or charity system. Hugo Chavez was the president of Venezuela for 14 years from 1999 to 2013. He established the so-called socialist system in his country. He wanted to introduce himself as the 'Leader of the Bolivarian Revolution'. However, Venezuela had huge oil reserves and the money from selling that oil abroad gave its citizens almost everything for free. Instead of using the exported oil money to improve agriculture, build factories or practise modern technology-based production, he made arrangements to import almost everything needed by the citizens from abroad and give it to the citizens at a very low cost and in many cases for free. As a result, by the year 2000, Venezuela's economy had completely collapsed. It still could not raise its head. Thousands of citizens are still leaving Venezuela and emigrating today. In particular, most are moving or intending to move to the US. What is the state of Fidel Castro's socialist Cuba today? Basically, Castro fed and clothed the people of his country for almost nothing by importing almost everything from the Soviet Union and the socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Today Cuba is in the list of one of the poorest countries in the world. More examples can be given. Countries that have 'served' their citizens through subsidy or charity politics are not faring well at all. Those countries are sinking.

It is certain that Khayrati or politics of freebies is not a constructive matter at all. But this political subculture is increasing in India. The issue of fatal consequences of Khayrati politics has also come to the attention of the top court of the country. The Supreme Court feels that this is a very important matter and the Central Government and the Election Commission should look into it. Later, the Election Commission also called an all-party meeting on the matter. There, the advice of various parties was sought to pull the rush in Khayrati politics. But no direction was found in that meeting. The central government also feels that if this thing continues, the country will have to face a big disaster in the future. Finally, the Supreme Court assigned a 3-judge bench to look into the matter.

If the central government, the Election Commission, the Supreme Court and the political parties fail to formulate and implement concrete policies to stop or control nepotism and politics of freebies then the world's largest democracy is sure to face a deep crisis anytime soon.

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Vol 56, No. 16, Oct 15 - 21, 2023