Such is the desperation of politicians and political parties to acquire power that they have no compunction in making the most outrageous and impractical promises at election time. In fact, the heat of competition makes them go completely overboard. If, by chance, they do get elected, any attempt at delivering on these often bankrupts the exchequer and introduces anomalies that, even in the short run, disrupt the economy. Take, for instance, the promise made by the Congress to provide free travel on Delhi’s buses to women, students and elderly persons. This is an attempt to go one up on the present free rides for women scheme by the AAP Government, which has already set a record in terms of populist programmes. At a time when the demand is for making public sector institutions not just financially self-reliant, but also profitable, such initiatives ensure that they not only run at a loss, but cannot upgrade facilities and provide satisfactory services to consumers. Later, down the line, the government is compelled to privatise these undertakings to cut the losses.
It is possible that the Congress is coming up with such promises in the knowledge that it hasn’t any hope of actually winning the number of seats required to form the government. However, it can hope that enough people are inveigled into voting for it so as to get an extra couple of seats, anything would be better than its present zero. A distant hope would be to have a situation where it might prop up an AAP government, Maharashtra style, if there is a fractured verdict.
And, of course, it is not just the Congress alone. The AAP and BJP will not be far behind – the focus essentially being on raiding the taxpayers’ funds to bribe gullible and ill-informed voters. Perhaps, it is time for the Election Commission and the Supreme Court to lay down guidelines on the kind of promises that can be made. Promises such as waiving loans, granting subsidies and free services such as electricity and water are rarely ever fulfilled in their entirety, but do drain away resources that ought to go into positive and fruitful programmes. Disproportionate expenditure in one area has a cascading effect right down the line. This is being witnessed in states like Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, where almost everybody is miffed at the failure to deliver on pre-poll promises. And, less said the better, about the more incendiary social programmes that parties vow to engineer on behalf of one or the other interest group! The only consolation is that voters are slowly wising up to such tactics and, eventually, might even punish such exploitative behaviour.