Ahead of crucial state elections this year and general elections a year and a half away, Indian political discourse has been dominated by the F-word in recent months: gifts. What constitutes a free gift?
At the heart of the controversy is a basic question: Do measures like free ration for India’s vast number of poor also fall under the category of gifts or are they welfare measures? The debate began in July when the prime minister drew an analogy with a sweet, called ‘revdi’, accusing his political opponents of offering gifts or a ‘revdi culture’ for votes, saying it was ‘very dangerous’ for in the country, its development. and well-being
The comment appeared to be largely aimed at Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party, known for its welfare schemes in Delhi as free power. The AAP has quickly emerged as a key challenger to the BJP, especially in the upcoming state elections in Gujarat.
Kejriwal immediately hit back at the Prime Minister, saying, “I am giving free and quality education to children from poor and middle class homes in Delhi. I want to ask people, am I distributing free revdis or laying the foundation of the country?”
The BJP has struggled to explain the difference between the Centre’s welfare measures and what its opponents are offering. Unsurprisingly, BJP spokespeople have spent much of their time attacking Kejriwal for “misleading promises”.
As the prime minister and top BJP leaders stepped up rhetoric on the issue, India’s election commission last week waded into the political debate on gifts.
The EC has written to political parties proposing that parties detail the cost of promises made before the election and explain to voters how they could be funded. The idea, EC officials say, is for voters to make an “informed choice” and know clearly how the schemes will be funded and for whom.
The intervention of the electoral commission is a case of excess and problematic for several reasons. First, the EC had publicly told the Supreme Court of India in April that this “free” and “irrational” are subjective and open to interpretation. In an affidavit in the high court, the EC had said that it cannot regulate state policies and decisions that a party can take after forming the government.
This, he said, would amount to an excess of powers. They told the top court that it is up to voters to decide whether handouts are financially viable or whether such policies have an adverse effect on the state’s economic health.
So what made the electoral commission make a sudden U-turn just a few weeks later? They have not given a reason. The EC’s job is to conduct free and fair elections, which it has done admirably for decades. It is not to control how political parties should frame their campaign promises and manifestos. And by reversing its own stance, the EC has done its reputation no favors.
The Supreme Court is already hearing a petition on gifts and has previously observed that the law does not prevent political parties from making promises in their election manifesto. The Court added that the manifesto of a political party is a statement of its policy and the question of its implementation arises only if the political party forms a government.
“Can universal healthcare, access to clean water and access to consumer electronics be treated as gifts?” he asked as he sent the matter to a three-judge panel.
The apex court is considering whether to reverse its own 2013 verdict in which it had held that promises of gifts cannot be termed as corrupt practice.
The debate about handouts and welfare measures is best left to the political stage. The election commission has little business in this and should let the people judge election promises.
Nidhi Razdan is an award-winning Indian journalist. She is a consulting editor at NDTV and has reported extensively on politics and diplomacy.