Thursday, July 25, 2013

The freebies that take voters for a ride by Radha Krishna, M.D., Andhra Jyothy

The following are ‘rough-and-ready’ excerpts from the Sunday op-ed article by Mr. Radhakrishna, M.D, Andhra Jyoti, in the issue dated July 7, 2013.

The Supreme Court has at last frowned upon political parties promising freebies with an eye on elections. They long ago bade goodbye to the practice of winning the hearts and minds of people with their ideologies and policies. Up to three decades ago, they used to announce what they would do if voted into power. Later on, they began to publicize what they would give to voters if elected into office. It was Mrs. Gandhi as Prime Minister who initiated distribution of dairy animals etc. to weaker sections. Subsequently, parties unveiled plans to write off loans. In the recent past, political parties have begun to offer something or the other to everyone. Some States are offering rice at one rupee a kg while some others are eager to distribute free of cost. All the expenditure on freebies has to be borne by the State exchequer. In other words, political parties are squandering public money to come into power.

We have recently been witnessing political parties or their candidates trying to win elections by distributing money among voters. In addition, they are now offering freebies. Dr. Y. S. Rajasekhara Reddy initiated the practice of squandering public money in the name of welfare schemes. Enamored of the freebies, people have not bothered themselves about the loot of the public exchequer. Attracted by the novelty, other parties too are coming forward to offer freebies.

Although the Supreme Court has declared that offer of freebies cannot be termed as a corrupt electoral practice, it is more dangerous than corruption. For instance, in Andhra Pradesh all the people have been mentally corrupted in the name of welfare schemes. As a result, people are openly saying, ‘We are not concerned as to how much money you make so long as you offer us something.’ They do not have the time or patience to focus on high-level corruption, when there is little to distinguish between one party and another; they believe they should patronize the party that offers them most in the form of freebies. All parties are caught up in the vicious circle of freebies. Voters are in no mood to listen parties that seek votes on the basis of policies and programs. The state of parties like the Lok Satta exemplifies the trend. Those who promise to build a healthy society are viewed as mad caps. ‘Tell us what you offer us today and not what you will do tomorrow’, is people’s refrain.


Lok Satta founder Dr. Jayaprakash Narayan says he loses sleep as he ponders over developments in the country. All those who are concerned about the future and the generations to come will find themselves on the same page. But unfortunately, political parties which should be concerned about the country’s future are not bothered. Their thoughts are confined to winning in elections. Let us consider the demand for the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh. The Congress High Command is not considering formation of a Telangana State to satisfy the demand of the people of the region. Its entire focus is on winning the maximum number of seats either by dividing the State or keeping it united. In other words, it is prepared to carve out a State or keep a State united just to win elections. All parties are thinking on the same lines. We too lose sleep like Dr. Jayaprakash Narayn if we ponder over the fate of our children’ and our own future in the hands of politicians who harbor such dangerous and narrow thoughts. Yet we are reconciled to such politicians since parties have made all of us too self-centered.

All of us are enveloped in hypocrisy. Those who speak the truth find themselves in the dock. Given to self-deception and blaming others, we have not been able to call a spade a spade. The BJP MP, Gopinath Munde’s episode is just an example. Munde said that he had to spend Rs.8 crore to get elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009 as against a mere Rs.29000 in the election to the Assembly in 1980. He was honest in making the admission. But his straightforwardness has landed him in trouble. The Election Commission has issued him a show-cause notice for spending more than the specified limit and concealing the fact from it. We can fault the Election Commission. The ceiling on electoral expenses fixed by the Election Commission for a candidate for the Lok Sabha election in a large State is Rs.40 lakh and in a small State Rs.16 lakh. Expenditure beyond the ceiling is a crime. But let us take a look at ground realities. Can anyone get elected to a House without spending crores of rupees? A person who was elected to the Assembly in the last elections in our State spent Rs.25 crore. Since he did not disclose it publicly, none issued him a show-cause notice. Those who were elected MPs from our State spent a minimum of Rs.10 crore and a maximum of Rs.50 crore. The Election Commission, judiciary and media are all aware of it. Since we continue to live in a world of hypocrisy, it does not seem to be a wrong.

The Gopinath Munde episode raises certain basic questions. Should we continue to indulge in self-deception by presuming that laws which cannot be implemented are adhered to? Or should we change laws in tune with changing circumstances? With election expenditure galloping continuously, prospective candidates are afraid of throwing their hat into the ring. A majority of voters are not prepared to vote unless they are paid. But do they vote for the candidate who pays them? They take money from all and vote for the candidate of their choice. Here, voters too are lacking in honesty. Still, candidates fear they cannot get even those votes unless they distribute money. Voting by accepting money is a crime. But can voters be punished. Are we acting against parties that distribute money during elections? If, however, anyone discloses the facts honestly, everyone will be eager to pounce on him and make him a scapegoat. Is it not ridiculous on the part of leaders like Digvijay Singh of the Congress Party to demand action against Gopinath Munde? Does he not know how much his own party candidates spent in Andhra Pradesh? Does it not amount to self-deception and blaming others?


Those who would like to render public service are not able to enter the election arena since only multi-millionaires can spend the money required. Even if someone who is honest chooses to contest, he does not get public support. Voters are not cognizant of the fact that by accepting money from contestants they are giving them a license to loot public money. People regard all candidates in the fray are of the same ilk. Some of them ask what alternative is left for them. Their argument is rational. The only option left to them is to choose the least harmful of the candidates in the race. It is foolish to expect a change in the stance of political parties when even a movement-based party like the Telangana Rashtra Samithi is planning to issue tickets only to the moneyed? Contesting elections has invariably become multi-crore rupee exercise. The Election Commission is incapable of preventing it.


With the State Election Commission announcing the schedule for panchayat elections, people of some villages are getting ready to elect those as sarpanches who are prepared to spend the maximum amount on village development. Media is dubbing such unanimous elections as an auction system. It is indeed a type of auction. The Election Commission has threatened to initiate criminal action against those who get elected as sarpanches thus. The Election Commission is correct in its perspective. Here again, we are indulging in self-deception. Initiation of criminal cases can prevent such auctions. But can purchase of votes in elections be prevented? In the recent elections to cooperative societies, there were reports of a vote being bought for Rs.20000. Some spent Rs.25-30 lakh to get elected as sarpanches in the last elections. The expenditure exceeded a crore of rupees in some instances. Is not paying money to voters a crime? Why should we, who cannot prevent money distribution, regard those who are prepared to spend money on village development as criminals and give them adverse publicity? How does spending one’s personal money for village development, instead of for buying votes, constitute a crime? Since the law does not permit it, it should be amended to facilitate unanimous election of those who are prepared to spend their personal funds for village development. But hypocrisy comes in the way.


Let us revert to the issue of freebies. Although the Supreme Court has declined to consider freebies as an electoral malpractice, they are much more dangerous. Political parties are corrupting the entire society through indiscriminate offer of freebies. In a way, they can be termed a sort of quid pro quo. They are luring the poor who constitute the majority with freebies. Government policies invariably are bound to be pro-rich as a majority of legislators are rich people. Nobody bothers about middle classes and they are losing faith in the political system. Since people belonging to rich and middle classes keep away from voting, it is the vote of the low-income people that enables a party to come into or lose power. This is more so in urban areas. As a result, political parties are keen on garnering votes of the poor by unveiling one freebie after another.

Electoral reforms are essential if the situation were to change. Steps should be taken to limit expenditure incurred on election publicity. There has been a proliferation in media outlets these days. The expenditure can be brought down if the campaign period is limited to a week. Political parties should be made accountable for the freebies they promise.

The most important reform is introduction of a proportional representation system. If political parties, instead of individuals, are in the electoral race, they can be spared from blackmailing by candidates. As of now, political parties do not know with which party their candidates will sail after elections. The candidates believe they are being given party ticket because they have money to splurge. As a result, political parties have to spend a lot of time on preventing the defection of their elected candidates. If there is proportional representation, political parties, depending on the percentage of votes they poll, can nominate candidates of their choice to the legislature. That will put an end to the ‘Aaya Ram, gaya Ram’ culture.

The days of a single party coming into power all over the country are gone. The proportional system, therefore, does not inflict any new damage on the polity. If the Supreme Court takes the initiative to usher in electoral reforms, it will render great service to the country. After all, since political parties will not come forward on their own to reform themselves, somebody has to take the initiative. The people, who should be exerting pressure in such matters, have become inert. They are not in a mood to react whatever happens. Those who are trying to transform society too are overtaken by despair and disappointment as people have become self-centered. Although the judiciary may be accused of crossing its limits, people will support it even if it takes action in the interests of society. Let us hope the judiciary will initiate measures to rein in offer of freebies and facilitate electoral reforms by exerting pressure on the concerned.

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