It is not the remit of the judiciary to suggest the making of laws to curb the runaway practice in Indian democracy of offering freebies for votes by political parties. What the top court has said so far in the matter of reining in the freebies was more in the nature of grandstanding rather than the ability to find the elusive solution.
Well-intentioned the Chief Justice may have been in trying to work out a formula on bringing some sort of curbs on the promise of freebies as a vote-catching strategy that has been embedded in the political scene for at least 50 years out of 61 years since the first general elections were held. But it is moot whether the judiciary should be interceding at all in an issue between the people and the parties and persons they vote to be lawmakers.
Qualifying the obiter dicta in the hearing of an IPL with phrases like “making legislation is not very advisable” does not justify the basic idea of the judiciary addressing this issue. Truth to tell, everyone, including those who promise sky high freebies, know that offering freebies has an impact on the public exchequer and is an economic burden on states.
Not even in Tamil Nadu, a pioneering state in freebies that started this practice by promising three measures of rice for Re 1 in the 1960s, has it been possible for those who govern to fulfil all promises made before polls.
With the outstanding debt of states being somewhere in the region of 25 per cent of GDP from a high of about 31 per cent of GDP, the capacity to sustain freebies — besides giving power to the poor, MGNREGA, agricultural subsidies, PDS expenditure and school meal schemes that are clearly warranted in a country with an extreme poverty level of around 30 per cent with less than Rs 100 a day to spend — has gone down.
The leading question the judiciary may have entertained is whether any political party would agree to curbs on freebies ahead of polls. Even so, the issue must be left to the people to decide as they have the wisdom to differentiate between the promise of freebies and what is deliverable. In any case, all parties in the fray offer freebies as a vote catching tactic.
There is less place for sanctimonious criticism of freebies but more room for thinking about fiscal stability and the power of the state to actually deliver on freebies.