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The dilemma of guarantees

The dilemma of guarantees

The real cost of election promises and their impact on governance and fiscal discipline need reexamination. Political parties must reassess their election strategies.

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Last Updated : 16 June 2024, 18:58 IST
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It is said that “citizens have rights, and rulers have responsibilities.” During the time of elections, the roles seem to get somewhat mixed up. Citizens become voters; rulers or politicians contesting elections assume they have certain rights, viz., the right to promise anything that would woo voters to vote for them. So they offer them freebies and subsidies, which have now graduated into what are called ‘guarantees’.

By definition, a citizen is someone who legally belongs to a country or a state and owes allegiance to its government. He is entitled to the rights and protection provided by that country and can participate in its political affairs and governance. In a democracy, the crucial aspect of citizenship is ‘participation’. This is clearly echoed in the opening words of our constitution, “We, the people,” who have created the constitution, although it might have been drafted and approved by a constituent assembly. Hence, it is the people who are supreme, not the elected officials. The question is, to what extent is this reflected in actual governance and public life?

The reality is that in India, the colonial legacy of people being subjects and rulers being masters still dominates the minds of several people, particularly in rural areas, and of a good number of elected officials. After they gain power, the elected officials feel superior to the people who have elected them. They take decisions unilaterally without consulting the stakeholders affected by such decisions. During elections, when the citizen turns voter, the candidate whose sole aim is to garner the maximum number of votes and win the election tries to win over the voters by offering them what they consider might influence the voter to cast the vote in her or his favour. This is evident from the huge amount of cash, liquor, and drugs seized during the election campaign.

The moot question is to what extent the freebies or guarantees work. The five guarantees that were supposed to have helped the Congress party win the last assembly elections in Karnataka seem to have failed in the parliamentary elections, leaving the party unable to get the expected number of seats. The state Congress spokesperson, M  Lakshmana, who lost the Lok Sabha election, has openly questioned the utility of the guarantees and said that the forward-caste voters who are reaping the benefits of the guarantee schemes have supported the BJP, which is opposing these schemes, and has urged the chief minister to review the scheme. Something similar happened in Telangana, and several Congress leaders have started questioning the utility of the guarantees. About two years ago, Prime Minister Modi himself raised the issue of freebies, and a debate had begun on welfare versus development. A writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court in 2022 by one Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay stating that the pre-election promises made by political parties for the distribution of free goods that have a large-scale impact on the economy of the state should not be permitted, and it was nothing but an attempt to attract the vote bank; even the apex court had lent its weight to the proposal and suggested setting up an expert body to regulate freebies promised in electoral campaigning. But in the midst of the din and bustle of arguments within the court, the idea failed to take shape.

The time has come to revive the debate, not antagonistically between welfare and development, but on how to balance the two. As long as there are people living below the poverty line and lacking minimum living standards, certain freebies such as food grains and subsided housing must continue. But should guarantees such as free bus travel to all women irrespective of their financial status, monthly grants of Rs 2,000 to all women heads of households, and Rs 3,000 to all graduate youth without a job announced on the eve of elections constitute purely vote-catching devices? This is worth debating. Moreover, the announcements are made without assessing the cost involved for the exchequer and their long-term implications on the finances and fiscal discipline of the state.

An important issue that arises in this discourse is the role of the citizen as voter and of the voter as citizen. The voter is primarily a citizen and derives his right to vote from the citizenship he holds. Hence, he has to exercise his responsibility while casting his vote without being influenced by extraneous considerations. To what extent the voter will be influenced by freebies and guarantees is a moot question, as no one can know the mind of the voter. She or he may happily accept the offer of one party and vote for another party, as presumably happened in Karnataka and Telangana. What should really weigh in the mind of the voter is which political party can provide good governance. Just casting a vote does not by itself guarantee that the party/parties voted to power will exercise their authority responsibly. The citizen also needs to exercise constant vigilance over the conduct of those elected to public office. This is where citizen education becomes important. The Justice Verma Committee on Fundamental Duties, constituted in 1999, rightly observed that unless emphasis is laid on citizenship values through building public opinion, imparting value education, and creating the necessary climate for good citizenship, it would be difficult to sustain our democratic polity and constitutional system.

A greater responsibility rests on the political leaders not to mislead the public by holding out promises, which can amount to ‘bribing’. The duty of a political party is to spell out the policies and measures it would implement to accelerate economic development, expand opportunities for education and employment, and create better health care facilities. Can there be some rules, or at least guidelines, to begin with, on what the contents of a party manifesto should be? Interestingly, in the writ petition case referred to above, none of the parties, including the Supreme Court and the government, was willing to constitute a committee to address the question of freebies. This leaves the door open for citizens to act and constitute a Citizens’ Committee. This is not going to be easy, either. Who will constitute such a committee, who should be its members, and related questions arise.

Can some leading citizen organisations, academic institutions, and intellectuals who can conduct research on the subject take the initiative in setting in motion a conversation to which
citizens as well as political parties
can contribute?

(The writer is a former chief secretary, Government of Karnataka)

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