The people's business

The purpose and quality of poll promises and giveaways should not be assessed by the EC, or the courts

The Supreme Court has stopped short of declaring Tamil Nadu's big election blowouts "unconstitutional". It has dismissed a PIL that argued that the AIADMK's promise of providing household items to the electorate was a "corrupt practice" under the Representation of the People Act. It rightly noted that distributing benefits to the eligible and needy was a directive principle of state policy, and that a more appropriate place to debate these matters was the legislature. The court did, however, add that competitive populism tilted the electoral playing field. Since manifestos are declared before the onset of the period governed by the code of conduct ahead of the election, the SC directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines to curb such practices. It also flagged the need for a separate law to govern political parties.

Elections in Tamil Nadu usually feature a range of giveaways to various groups, from mixer-grinders to TV sets, cattle to laptops. But the phenomenon is not confined to Tamil Nadu. In states like Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, too, parties are known to make extravagant promises ahead of the election, be it subsidised power or cheap grain. Recently, in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party announced a range of benefits, like scholarships for BPL families, for minorities and for girls many of which overlap. It also promised laptops and tablets. Sometimes, these "gifts" create their own ironies, as when households without electricity are handed TV sets. The election "freebie", though, enfolds a range of schemes and programmes, and we must be wary of lumping them into one category. Some of them, like targeted scholarships, or schemes for widows, serve useful ends. They could be considered entitlements, and accommodated in social policy rather than presented as a single party's large-heartedness, but they are not illegitimate. In many cases, they are the citizens' due, paid from their own taxes. They should be assessed separately, on their merits, or demerits.

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