Freebies, also known as “Revdi,” refer to the free distribution of goods or services by political parties to entice voters to vote for them or to remain in power.
In general, the term is used negatively to express inessential and superfluous state expenditures on private goods. In the wake of the mounting fiscal deficit of the states, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, this freebie debate has again gained public attention.
Freebies such as free electricity, bicycles, coloured TVs, mixers, mobile data, unemployment benefits, scooters, washing machines, and so on are largely to blame for the state exchequer turning red. Therefore, it becomes quintessential to determine whether a welfare state is justified in exhausting the hard-earned taxpayers’ money over the creation of private assets. Also, what limitations, if any, could be imposed over these free disbursements by the Constitution of India or any electoral law in the country?
Arguments Against Freebies
It is argued that this free disbursement contravenes various provisions of the Indian Constitution. It violates Article 14, the equality clause, as these are targeted only at a few sections of society and not for all. It contradicts Article 41, which obligates the state to secure certain rights for its people within the limits of its economic capacity and development. But these Revdis have created insurmountable debts for the states. It also disregards Article 162, as the power to make such promises does not fall under the executive power of the states.
When these freebies serve no public purpose, spending on them amounts to a violation of Article 266(3) and Article 282 since money can’t be appropriated out of the consolidated fund for any purpose that is not recognized in the Constitution.
These free assurances are nothing but a form of bribery and, hence, amount to a corrupt practice under section 123(1)(A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
Arguments Supporting Freebies
Contrary to the above arguments, it is advanced that free deliveries advance the preambular ideas and goals enshrined in the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSPs).
The Constitution envisages the idea of an egalitarian society that aims to secure social justice. The state is duty-bound to meet the basic needs of its people. Articles 38, 39, and 46 obligate the state to secure social and economic justice, promote the welfare of the people, provide adequate means of livelihood, and promote the interests of weaker sections of society.
In today’s world, TVs, laptops, and fans constitute a basic need, which at one time was a luxury. Moreover, to be considered corrupt under section 123(1)(A) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, a practice must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the Act’s provisions must be strictly interpreted, as penal statutes require strict interpretation.
Analysis (Important Case Law)
This freebie debate knocked on the doors of the Supreme Court in the case of S. Subramaniam Balaji vs State of Tamil Nadu (2013). The arguments mentioned above were put before the court for consideration and a decision was given accordingly.
However, the court befittingly refrained from exercising its jurisdiction over the policy decisions of the state. It delineated that it is for the government to decide what policy decisions it would take to ameliorate (make something better) or lift the livelihood of its people. Interference from the courts would be permissible only when it is in violation of the law of the land or unconstitutional and not when it is unwise.
When monies are withdrawn from the state’s consolidated fund for a public purpose, and after following due procedure, a judicial intervention will jeopardize the basic structure of the separation of powers.
Also, the court clarified that section 123 of the Representation of the People Act applies to an individual and not to a party as such. Accordingly, free promises made by the parties don’t amount to bribery under the alleged section.
The new public interest litigation (PIL) filed in the Supreme Court to adjudicate upon the constitutionality of the promises of freebies poses various challenges before the court.
First, how do you define a freebie or differentiate between an essential and a non-essential good? Will free 2 GB of data not constitute an essential good in today’s computerized world? Will giving the girls bicycles or scooters not help them improve their mobility, making higher education more accessible? Or will unemployment benefits not mitigate the suicidal tendencies in unemployed youth? Today’s essentials can’t just be limited to food, clothing, and shelter.
Second, whether to remain a passive observer of unjust and unfavourable state policy decisions or to exercise judicial review even of state policy decisions? If it opts for the latter, the principle of separation of powers is bound to suffer.
Third, should collective rights be prioritized over individual rights or vice versa? The extent to which individual rights may be sacrificed in a welfare state to advance the rights of groups needs to be made clear.
Though the court may choose not to be intrusive in policy decisions, the issue may best be left to the wisdom of a political party and a voter. It should, however, direct parties to ensure that a proper process is followed for the distribution of freebies and that they are always made available only to the needy or the disadvantaged.
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