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Constitution Day: Politicians Are 'Buying' Votes and It’s Costing Us a Fortune

It is difficult for us to curb freebies because of our Constitution and the parliamentary model of majority rule.

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Just this week, the Election Commission reported that there is a seven-fold increase in the usage of freebies for campaigning in the five state elections.

Last August, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court said that using taxpayer money to entice voters with free stuff is a “serious economic issue.” As a solution, he suggested creating an apex body that would include the RBI (Reserve Bank of India), NITI Ayog, the Finance Commission, the Election Commission, and both the ruling and opposition parties.

Such an ad hoc approach to solving this problem is unlikely to work. Our Constitution, in fact, enables such abuse: its adherence to majority-rule; lack of regulation of political parties; fusion of executive and legislative powers; paucity of checks on government; overlapping state and central powers, and even its Preamble and Directive Principles.

All of these make it difficult to restrict parties and governments from making financially unattainable and irresponsible promises.

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Winners Are Often Those Who Make the Tallest Promises

Freebies are hard to control because they are hard to define. One man’s freebie can be another man’s welfare. All political parties and governments claim that their promised benefits are essential for the poor, the underprivileged, the women and children, and so on.

True, some of their promises can really be beneficial to society. It is impossible to conclude what constitutes a waste of taxpayer money based on a predefined set of criteria. And a program that seems beneficial today can become harmful tomorrow, and vice versa.

This problem occurs throughout the world. In all democracies, one faction is more left-leaning and wants to offer more welfare, while another is conservative and wants a reduced role of the government. One side wants more government spending and the other prioritises lower taxes. These fights are taken to the electorate, and the winners pursue their own programs.

This is precisely where the trouble begins with respect to controlling freebies, for the winners are often those who make the tallest promises.

In countries where the losing side is then ignored, welfare programs become too generous and taxes too high. Good democracies — where the winners and losers must work together— are better able to balance political generosity with fiscal prudence.

Contrastingly, Look at the US

India is handicapped in its ability to curb freebies because our Constitution, based on the parliamentary model of majority rule, gives the minority absolutely no power to modify or stop the majority’s programs. In contrast, the American presidential system has the majority and minority each controlling different branches of government so that the majority cannot “rule.”

Such a “divided government” has allowed American parties to take their fights about spending to such an extreme that the government is sometimes forced to shut down.

While the rest of the world may scoff at this notion, it helps the country balance its welfare programs.

The most famous example is the government shutdown of 1996 when President Bill Clinton (Democrat) and House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Republican) fought about spending for education and public health.

After the two sides compromised, Clinton announced the “end of welfare as we know it,” and the country balanced its budgets for four consecutive years for the first time since the 1920s.

Not only does India’s Constitution give the majority party the power to rule, but it doesn’t restrain political parties with any regulation whatsoever. Our parties are run as fiefdoms where one or two people can announce any giveaway program before an election. There are no internal elections of officials, no public voting on programs, and no disclosure requirements about their funding.

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Our Constitution Assigns Governments All Kinds of Overlapping Powers

When our parties come to power, they can enact their promised programs regardless of the fiscal damage because our Constitution has no checks on governments.

The Prime Minister or Chief Minister is given all executive and legislative powers, making Parliament and the state legislatures nothing but rubber stamps. There are no restrictions on debt limits and no independent budget approval processes. The Finance Commission can only evaluate the financial condition of governments but has no power to enforce its recommendations. Even the President or Governor must give in to their government’s wishes under our Constitution.

What makes freebies even harder to define and control in India is that our Constitution assigns governments all kinds of overlapping powers.

In addition to the Union and State lists of powers, the Concurrent List gives both governments full leeway in introducing programs in welfare areas such as education, medical, electricity, social security, employment, and so on.

Lastly, our Constitution’s Preamble and Directive Principles give governments justification for launching all kinds of schemes under the guise of “welfare.” The Preamble declares India to be a “Socialist” country, and the Directive Principles ask the state to provide “welfare of the people; adequate means of livelihood; education” and so on.

If "We the People" truly want our politicians to stop using taxpayer money for political freebies, we must shed the notion that fundamental change in India is impossible, unless we fix our Constitution.

(The author is Founder and CEO of the Divya Himachal group and author of ‘Why India Needs the Presidential System’. He can be reached @BhanuDhamija. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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