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The issue of making promises to the electorate in the form of future distribution of freebies after the political party comes to power, and their insertion into the political manifesto, has constantly raised the eyebrows of many enlightened citizens, economists, the political commentators, and the members of civil society. This practice has been successfully kept alive by the political parties for whom winning is the only target. Everybody expects something free in lieu of giving his precious vote to any political party, and freebies in the forms of bicycles, scooties, coloured television sets, electrical and electronic goods and free electricity and drinking water are just few examples. The list is ever-growing. The issue of freebies has caught nationwide attention when a public interest litigation was filed in the Supreme Court by a lawyer, Ashwini Upadhyay, sometime ago. In July (2022), a Bench of CJI, N.V. Ramana, J.K. Maheshwari and Hima Kohli started hearing the petition which is still ongoing. Even the apex court has pointed out during the hearings that the issue is a complicated one and needs thorough scrutiny. The court in her preliminary observation averred that "you cannot prevent a political party or individual from making promises that are aimed at fulfilling this constitutional mandate, if elected to power. The question is what exactly qualifies as a valid promise." The court further averred that "I don't think promises alone can decide the outcome of an election. Some make promises and even then, they are not elected. Concerns are about the right way of spending taxpayers' money. Some people say money is wasted; some say it is welfare. These issues are getting complicated."3 The Supreme Court is very realistic to observe that the electoral promises of freebies do not necessarily ensure the success in the elections, but still this tendency is increasing by leaps and bounds every time an election of any magnitude takes place in the country. In this context, the question arises whether a political party’s manifesto can incorporate anything of its choice or there are any legal limitations? According to the noted constitutional expert, Gautam Bhatia, "To begin with, a political party's manifesto is a bargain between the party and the voter. This does not mean, of course, that a manifesto can-for example-contain intimidatory messages or hate speech; however, promises about economic policies do not fall within any constitutionally prohibited category. A manifesto may contain promises that some might believe are economically unwise or unnecessary, but a judgment of the wisdom of future economic policy-at the end of the day-must rest with voters at the ballot box and not with the courts or other bodies."4 Thus, it is obvious that the political parties can put down in writing the provisions of the so-called freebies pertaining to economic policies.

Various aspects of freebies

1. Economic:

In India, States as well as the average citizen, are in the habit of visualizing the Centre as Santa Claus, who is always there to dole out freebies in different forms. During the Covid-19 pandemic, even the economists clamoured for more physical spending, forgetting about the debt. But evil consequences of such an action of overspending in the US, in particular, are currently being felt by the whole world. Recently, Sri Lanka has shown the world the risks of over-borrowing to finance subsidies. From the economics point of view, raising productivity and growth are the only conducive tools to generate more resources. However, freebies tend to reduce productive government expenditure. Further, they badly influence the decisions as to consumption and production. For example, free electricity-induced over-irrigation and choice of rice cultivation were greatly responsible for the largest rise in debt and cut in capital expenditure in Punjab.5 Similarly, the case of Delhi government is worth mentioning here. Over the last few years, it has made a series of announcements, doling out subsidies. It has resulted in shrinking of revenue surplus from over Rs. 10,000 crores in 2010-11 to a little over Rs. 1,000 crores in 2021-22- a nearly 88% decline. In the same time frame, the Delhi government has witnessed its dependence on grants-in-aid from the Centre go up by 122%. In the absence of such aid, Delhi government's surplus would have vanished. That would have resulted in a Rs.2,000 crore deficit. In the light of budgetary projections for 2022-23, Delhi will further see its surplus vanish with a Rs.3,000 crore deficit. As a consequence of Delhi government's fiscally irresponsible policies, there is an increase of 39% in the debt over the last 10 years and borrowings from the centre has increased to the level of Rs.4,700 crore. The Delhi government is not the only one involved in such financial profligacy, other States like Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Punjab, in particular, are also fitting the bill. With the passage of time, this announcement of freebies is becoming the new normal to win elections in any State or U.T. Recently, the Prime Minister of India, Sri Narendra Modi warned the people against a 'revadi' (sweetmeat) culture in politics.

2. Legal aspect:

Though the legality of freebies is under consideration of the apex court, the right course for the ruling party is to take a collective decision in the cabinet before introducing the freebies in the form of a bill and present it on the table of the Parliament or the Legislative Assembly, as the case may be. That means the freebies in the name of welfare measures, developmental measures or any other activity bringing relief to the poor must be a part of the overall budget of the government and it should be passed by the legislature. The parliamentarians and the people have a right to know about the purpose, content, and the budgetary provisions for such freebies. The political parties also have a duty to refrain from announcing freebies of any kind on the eve of elections without providing any details about the proposed freebies. After all, the freebies will be distributed out of taxpayers' money who are entitled to transparency in such fiscal affairs.

3. Moral aspect:

It is the duty of any government to lend a helping hand to the poor, needy and people-in-distress by distributing subsidies and freebies. Its purpose is to make their life a shade better and also self-sustaining. Hence, the freebies and such good subsidies should not be a routine affair. Rather, long-term policies should be formulated to raise the life-standards of the people. Also, the distribution should not and cannot be generalised, as it will kill the very purpose of giving freebies. Only the deserving persons should be helped by the governments. Pre-poll announcements of freebies are made with the sole intention of wooing the voters which is not good for a democracy. Moreover, it has created a chain reaction amongst the political parties as far as the nature of freebies is concerned. The political parties forget the reality that it is the money in the form of taxes deposited by the honest taxpayers, which is intended to be distributed largely among the people who are doing nothing and can be categorised as non-productive citizens. This generates a culture of non-performance in the long run. In a country like India which is striving hard to become a leading economy of the world, this trend is more dangerous and self-incriminatory.

Freebies undefined

The main problem with the freebies is that the term lacks any definition acceptable to all. In common parlance, it denotes anything given or provided free of charge. As mentioned earlier, eyebrows are raised when the freebies are announced by political parties during the electoral process. The Supreme Court during the hearing of the present public interest litigation is deliberating upon the viability of the formation of an expert committee to examine all the issues in detail regarding the freebies and to suggest measures for consideration of the lawmakers in the Parliament. The Court is of the view that only the Parliament can legislate on this cantankerous issue related to people's interests. In an earlier case of Subramaniam Balaji vs. Government of Tamil Nadu (2013), the apex court has averred that the Court cannot make guidelines or laws on what election promises should be allowed and what shouldn't. The Court held that "it is not within the domain of this Court to legislate what kind of promises can or cannot be made in the election manifesto".


Thus, it is obvious that the problem of freebies is many-faceted, and the solution depends upon deep scrutiny of the matter by experts from various fields. The Supreme Court's deliberations on this aspect of forming an expert panel will go a long way in settling the issue for future. Till then, the political parties have to restrain themselves for adopting such practices, once the electoral process has started. If anything seems to be beneficial to the general public, it should be presented in the election manifesto with all connected details for the sake of transparency. In any case, the announcement of freebies with an intent to woo the voters, is neither healthy nor ethical for any democratic polity. All stakeholders involved in the electoral process owe this onerous responsibility to safeguard the democracy in India. For the time being, one has to wait for the Supreme Court's judgment in the pending public interest litigation. It is also a challenge before the lawmakers to legislate on this burning issue. But it needs to be resolved forever keeping in view the long-term consequences.

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  1. Ashwini Upadhyay vs. Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 43 of 2022.
  2. Utkarsh Anand, Are promises on water, power, freebies…issue complicated: SC, Hindustan Times, Aug 18,2022.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gautam Bhatia, Decoding the problems with the 'freebies' debate, Aug 18,2022.
  5. Ashima Goyal, Freebies (Charges Extra, The Economic Times, Aug 18,2022.
  6. Shashi Shekhar Vempati, Don't Let Freebies Be a Crutch, The Economic Times, Aug 20,2022.