Indian Democracy and Labhartees

Government of India has made a distinction between welfare measures and freebies.
Keywords: State, Freebies, population, Welfare, DBT, Digital, Subsidy
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Many educated Indians express their disapproval of free incentives given by political parties in return for votes, especially the votes of the poor. This is done through the distribution of freebies before polls. Many regional parties irresponsibly dole out these welfare measures surreptitiously. Free bus rides to women, free water, free rice, free electricity up to a given slab, free bicycles for school-going children and free tablets/laptops for college goers, subsidised gas-cylinders, various pension schemes for the old-aged and disabled, investment support for farmers and so on are some of the sops. Whether all of these come under the umbrella of the welfare state or are freebies is a moot point. These provisions were questioned by the Supreme Court while hearing a petition by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay seeking directions for the Central government and the Election Commission to regulate the poll manifestos of political parties. The Court asked whether ruling political parties providing universal healthcare, access to drinking water, and access to consumer electronics can be legally regarded as bribing the electorate or whether such provisions are the rights of citizens. The dilemma has not yet been solved. The predicament persists.

In offering these incentives each party shows one-upmanship during elections. The increase in these sops puts mounting stress on the exchequer. Instead of doing developmental work of state-building, these promises may result in stalling progress. When made by political parties before elections, they look like bribes for the voters. Of course, this practice is a natural stage in all evolving democracies. If you give a five hundred rupee note or a bottle of brandy to a voter, you are essentially bribing him. If zero incentives are there, would a voter come to vote? The Spoils System of the United States until 1828 was somewhat alike, there were pay-offs from politicians (both Democrats and Republicans). After the win, the ruling party rewarded its political friends and supporters. The later Pendleton Act altered the scene by giving preference to merit rather than political patronage. The political promises and spoils system endures at the local level in the US as shown by the practice of sending vote gatherers in poorer neighbourhood with presents for residents who cast their ballots for the gifting Party.

Indisputably, a democracy has to recognise interest groups but also provide checks and balances. It cannot work merely through a centralised bureaucratic impersonal government. Moreover, politics is a zero-sum game: one political party’s gain is another party’s loss. India’s economic growth did not lead to the creation of many quality jobs, barring the service sector. There is a great disparity in the living standards of the population between and within states. The 1991 economic reforms uplifted many in the middle class but others remained where they were at the lower rung of the economic ladder.

Unemployment is a major problem, especially in states whose governments cannot provide conditions conducive to growth and employment generation. What these state governments are effectively doing is compensating for their failure by giving sops or freebies to the marginalised. Welfare in the form of cash/DBT (Direct Benefit Transfer) is inevitable. This form of assistance is needed due to deep inequality and poverty at the bottom of the pyramid in our society.

The Indian population assumes that welfare measures are rights to which they are entitled. Indeed, for the poor Indians, patronising mai-baap sarkar is a requirement regardless of the state’s capacity. Through technology’s centralised data-base, the leaders are getting directly connected to the beneficiaries, with no intermediaries. This has led to the state giving more and more and citizens remaining passive recipients rather than actively participating in the economic growth of the country. Poorer sections are happy to get free gas, power, toilets, and cash. Once the basics are fulfilled, they should also work to perform their duties for nation-building. They should look after their families, educate their children and make them law-abiding, and cooperate within their respective communities and neighbourhoods. When Mahatma Gandhi was asked what civilisation, he answered (quoting Hind Swaraj): ‘Civilisation is that mode of conduct which points out to a man the path of duty. Performance of duty (farajj) and observance of morality (niti) are convertible (exchangeable). The Gujarati equivalent for civilisation means “good conduct” (sudharo).’ Hence, Gandhi ji put emphasis on duty.

Finally, the Government of India has made a distinction between welfare measures and freebies. In the recently presented interim budget before the Lok Sabha elections of 2024, the finance minister shunned courting voters with gifts and concessions and focused on welfare schemes such as PM-KISAN and the extension of health coverage to ASHA and Anganwadi workers. The budget also includes a scheme to provide ‘Housing for Middle Class’ and a promise to supply one crore households with rooftop solar panels. The progress of India should consist in extending socio-economic franchises by raising the incomes of the lower strata of the population.

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Indira G.

Indira G is associated with the organisation Pragna Bharati, Hyderabad and is Incharge-Publications. She also contributes to Opindia and other news platforms.

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