The history of freebie culture that the AAP and Centre are fighting over

The Centre has criticised the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP for luring the voters of Gujarat with free electricity. However, the freebie culture is not new to Indian politics. It can be traced back to Tamil Nadu: In 1967, DMK founder CN Annadura promised 4.5 kg of rice for Re 1 if he were to be elected

In the last few days, freebies have suddenly entered the news cycle when Prime Minister Narendra Modi called out ‘Revadi’ culture or freebies and said it is dangerous for the country and could lead to far-reaching economic consequences.

The attack was seen as a direct dig at Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has promised ‘freebies’ of Rs 1,000 per month to women and round-the-clock power supply ahead of Gujarat elections.

The matter has even reached the Supreme Court with Chief Justice of NV Ramana on Thursday stating that a balance had to be struck between the economy losing money and welfare measures. His observation came as the apex court was hearing a PIL filed by lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, which opposes the practice of political parties promising freebies during elections.

As the issue heats up, we take a better look at what are freebies, their history in politics and how political parties view them.

Freebies explained

The dictionary meaning of the word freebie is something that you’re given free. So, free power, healthcare, and education can, technically, be counted as a freebie.

The actual meaning of it however, depends on who you are asking and the time and place.

As the Election Commission has explained that freebies was a term open to subjective interpretation and has no precise legal definitions. For instance, during a natural disaster or a pandemic, providing life-saving medicines, food or funds may save lives but in regular times, they can be termed freebies.

A Reserve Bank of India (RBI) report has stated that freebies are not merit goods or expenditures such as public distribution system, employment guarantee schemes, and states’ support for education and health facilities. It states that freebies are provisions for free electricity, water or transportation, besides waiver of pending utility bills and loans, and other such benefits.

History of the freebie

A look back at Indian politics will show that the origins of freebie culture began in Tamil Nadu.

Late Kumaraswami Kamaraj, the chief minister of erstwhile Madras state, introduced sops in the form of free education and free meals for school students between 1954 and 1963. Later, in 1967, Dravida Munnetra Kazagham founder CN Annadurai took the culture forward by promising 4.5 kg of rice for Re 1 if he were to be elected.

It didn’t stop there.

During the 2006 state election, the DMK stepped up their freebie game and offered colour televisions to the voters.

From then on, the whole cycle went crazy and parties trying to show up each other offered gas stones, cash handouts, pieces of land and even maternity assistance.

In 2015, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) stormed to power in Delhi on the promise of providing a certain amount of water and electricity free of cost to people.

In 2021, Thulam Saravanan, an Independent candidate from Madurai in the Tamil Nadu elections, promised those who voted for him would receive helicopters and cars, Rs 1 crore per household, gold, household robots, 100-day trips to the moon and, even artificial icebergs to keep residents of his constituency ‘cool’.

He later clarifies that the promises were a joke, supposedly an attempt to parody the freebie-offering politicians.

Who pays for these freebies?

The very simple answer to this is the taxpayer. A report in The Quint explains it the best: “It’s like putting money in your left pocket by taking it out from your right pocket.”

Experts note that freebies disrupt state finances and throws governments into a debt spiral. For instance, Andhra Pradesh chief minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy said his government spent Rs 1.62 lakh crore under various freebie schemes. This despite the fact the state was recently mulling mortgaging government land and offices to run the administration.

Freebies: Boon or bane?

There have been endless debates on the matter of freebies and if they are actually helpful. Financially, freebies are a drain to the country’s resources.

Economists opine that as long as any State has the capacity and ability to finance freebies then it is fine; if not then freebies are the burden on economy.

Some scholars go further and say that there is little evidence to support the relationship between freebies and economy. So freebies are only a bad political philosophy.

The sorrow of poor people in India cannot be solved by freebies or by incentives. As far as farmers and their productivities are concerned, free electricity, free water, farm loan waivers, subsidies are not the sustainable solutions.

Another argument against freebie culture is that it’s a manipulation of the voter.

What has SC said on freebies?

The recent hearing by the Supreme Court on the matter of freebies isn’t the first time. In 2013, the Supreme Court had said, “Budgets for freebies are going above regular budgets. This disturbs the level playing field. Freebies, undoubtedly, influence all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree.”

At the time, the apex court had also said that separate legislation should be made on this issue.

The matter has once again reached the doors of the top court in the country through a PIL filed by advocate-petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, seeking directions to freeze the election symbol or de-register a party for offering freebies ahead of elections.

A bench of Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices A S Bopanna and Hima Kohli termed the issue serious, adding, “The poor need to be fed but public welfare needs to be balanced because the economy is losing money due to freebies.”

The bench, however, ruled out the possibility of de-recognising parties, with CJI NV Ramana saying, “I do not want to enter the area of de-registering a political party etc. as it is an undemocratic idea…We are a democracy after all.”

The Supreme Court has asked all stakeholders to discuss and provide suggestions and fixed the case for further hearing on 17 August.

With inputs from agencies

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