Sops for Votes: From Electricity to Financial Aid to Jobs, Parties Dish Out ‘Freebies’ Ahead of Assembly Polls

A phenomenon almost every election season, it is once again time for political parties out there to make some promises, announce a few sops and manipulate the voter’s choice by offering hard-to-resist “freebies”.

Seven states are going to polls in the New Year. Five among them – Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Manipur and Uttarakhand – will witness assembly elections in the initial months of the year. Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, meanwhile, will have polls towards the end of the year.

Among these poll-bound states are two major ones: most populous Uttar Pradesh and most controversial Punjab. It’s raining freebies in both.

Call them sops or promises, freebies have a place in all poll manifestoes of political parties during election season. “Political freebies” are carefully curated keeping in mind voter base and choice. They could be anything: subsidies on basic needs such as food and clothing; free-of-cost essentials such as power and housing; schemes for enhancement of standard of living such as free education or travel; or even items of daily need like free WiFi, televisions, laptops.

The Supreme Court has earlier said free-of-cost items promised by political parties in their poll manifestoes make free and fair polls impossible and “disturb a level-playing field”. Recently, vice-president Venkaiah Naidu, too, suggested that there should be a wider debate on political parties doling out freebies. In a report published by Times of India, Naidu said, “We are all alive to the present scenario of governments indulging in doling out freebies for obvious reasons. While ensuring the welfare and social security of the needy people is an important obligation of the governments, it is time that there is a wider debate…”

Experts have also said the freebie policy could have financial ramifications on budgets that, in turn, undermine real outcomes of “welfare schemes”. According to a report in The Hindu, Professor Sanjay Kumar, director, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), said freebies were neither a recent nor special phenomenon in India and were a usual offering from political parties in the run-up to elections.

“But every party, whether it is the Congress or the BJP, have all resorted to this. The failure of the parties and governments to deliver development to the ordinary people has led to the increased phenomenon of “freebies” and the parties have to resort to it to win over the voters,” he was quoted as saying.

During its campaign for the upcoming assembly elections, the BJP has accused the Congress of “doling out freebies” to garner votes instead of empowering the people of India in the last 70 years.

The party’s national president, JP Nadda, said the Narendra Modi-led government, meanwhile, had supported people in becoming “self-reliant and empowered them through initiatives like Ujjwala Yojana and Ayushman Bharat”.

In an obvious attack on the AAP-led government in Delhi, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar also said, his state’s economy was better than Delhi’s as they (meaning the ruling party) had “spoiled their economy through freebies”.

Call it “irresponsible populism” or even a “bribe”, which party is offering a better deal may sway or manipulate voters. No sops, no manifesto.

Hence, here’s a look at who’s offering what:

UTTAR PRADESH

Pitted as the mother of all assembly elections this year, Uttar Pradesh will go to polls in February. The political battleground is heating up as parties put their best foot forward to woo voters.

The Aam Aadmi Party has announced 300 units of free electricity if voted to power. The party said all power arrears will be waived off and farmers will get free electricity. In its manifesto, the party has also promised employment guarantee and a larger budget for education.

It seems like aping the AAP is the latest trend. On Saturday, Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, too, promised free power for irrigation to farmers if voted to power. He also promised 300 units of free electricity to all households. He said this would be a part of the poll manifesto for the upcoming assembly election.

With national general secretary Priyanka Gandhi campaigning for the grand old party, the Congress is playing the “woman card”. The party has promised 40 per cent reservation for women in assembly tickets and has released a separate manifesto catering to women only. Sample this: smartphones and electric two-wheelers for girls, increase in pension for widows and senior citizens, increase in honorarium for ASHA and anganwadi workers, free bus travel for women in the state, three free gas cylinders a year.

The Rashtriya Lok Dal, meanwhile, has promised to increase amount under PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi from Rs 6,000 to Rs 12,000 and Rs 15,000 for small farmers.

PUNJAB

Doles are the way to go in Punjab.

Often on the receiving end of the backlash from opposition parties for announcing a slew of “freebies” in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party is not far behind when it comes to Punjab. Chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has made an effort to woo female voters and promised to transfer Rs 1,000 per month to every woman aged 18 or above.

The Shiromani Akali Dal, meanwhile, has also copied the AAP somewhat and promised Rs 2,000 to each woman with a blue card.

GOA

In Goa, too, it was AAP supremo Kejriwal who started the freebie trend. The party has promised five pre-poll guarantees, which includes free power, employment and pilgrimages. He has promised free power to the tune of 300 consumed units for domestic connections, a job in every home and unemployment doles for the youth, free pilgrimages to the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Ajmer Sharif Dargah and Vellankani for Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Jumping onto the bandwagon after first ridiculing Kejriwal, chief minister Pramod Sawant promised 16,000 litres of water free of cost to domestic consumers. Sawant tried playing up a budgetary scheme as announced by Kejriwal this year. The scheme, which was buried in the details of voluminous budget announcements, offers free pilgrimages in temples across the state to senior citizens.

The TMC, meanwhile, has made a slew of freebies, especially to those involved in the fisheries sector. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s key promises include a Rs 4,000 monthly allowance for those working in the sector, increase in the existing fuel subsidy by 2.5 times.

The Congress has, however, stayed clear of the freebie race so far, with Leader of Opposition Digambar Kamat claiming that such assurances are nothing but “pre-poll jumlas”.

(With PTI inputs)

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