New Delhi, Aug. 12: When India’s poor will receive food security may be unclear but TVs and laptops will continue to be thrown at them as freebies if the politicians have their way.
Hit where it hurt, the majority of political parties today set aside their spats to unite against a poll panel move, dictated by the Supreme Court, to check the surfeit of free sops in election manifestos.
Five national parties from the Right, Left and Centre and 23 regional outfits told the Election Commission they had sole and unfettered right to decide the content of their manifestos and it should not be infringed upon by any authority.
The only dissenters were the Bahujan Samaj Party, bristling at the free laptops being doled out by rival Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh, and Northeast parties Nagaland People’s Front and Mizo National Front.
The politicians’ swift action contrasts with the way they have been stalling Parliament, where key bills on food security, land acquisition, and pension and insurance reforms are on the business agenda.
“The Election Commission or even the judiciary has no right to intervene in the contents of the election manifesto. It is a prerogative and the right of the political party,” CPM politburo member A.K. Padmanabhan told the all-party meeting, called by the poll panel following a July 5 Supreme Court order.
The court had said that “freebies of any kind… shakes the roots of free and fair elections” and directed the commission to frame guidelines on election manifestos and include them in its model code of conduct.
Ajay Maken of the Congress, sources said, echoed Padmanabhan. BJP member Ravi Shankar Prasad argued that free laptops and bicycles helped the poor. Even the “intelligence of the voter” was invoked.
“To believe that promises of freebies can beguile the electorate into voting for that party is to insult the intelligence of the voter,” Abdul Khaliq, secretary-general of Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party, was quoted as saying.
Prasad endorsed the claim, citing how a Tamil Nadu party (the DMK) had lost an election despite promising free colour TV sets and cable connections.
The Marxists raised a semantic shield, too.
In its note to the parties ahead of the meeting, the poll panel had defined a “freebie” as “something given without charge”, implying its focus was — as the apex court’s had been — on free TVs and laptops rather than cheap rice or kerosene.
However, the CPM’s counter note claimed: “It is not possible to define the word ‘freebies’…. The definitions in the Webster dictionary or the Oxford dictionary do not help us…. All promises on any matter can be interpreted as freebies.”
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines “freebie” as “something that is given to someone without payment, usually by a company”.
To Webster’s Encylcopedic Unabridged Dictionary, a freebie is “something given without charge or cost, as a ticket to a performance or sporting event or a free sample at a store”.
Bahujan Samaj Party member S.C. Mishra told reporters that freebies were aimed at luring voters and denied poll contestants a level playing field.