Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s bid to win a record back-to-back Assembly election by offering freebies has not only sparked a debate over electoral promises adding up to bad economics, but also started creating a headache-of-sorts for him like in the case of free smartphones for 1.35 crore women wherein some beneficiaries allegedly are complaining about the poor quality of the handsets.
Even the free power scheme for the poor faced criticism, initially, amid allegations that the surcharge on bills was undoing the benefits of the free electricity offer. Apart from 100 free units of power, the state government has now waived off fixed charges, fuel surcharge and other levies for customers who consume up to 200 units of power in a month. Consumers using up to 200 units will also not be charged for the first 100 units of power.
Other schemes announced by Ashok Gehlot for the poor include LPG cylinder for Rs 500 for those in the Below Poverty Line (BPL) category; free scooters for 30,000 meritorious girl students at a total cost of Rs 390 crore; free emergency care under right to health; family health insurance of Rs 25 lakh—up from Rs 10 lakh earlier, along with an accident insurance cover of Rs 10 lakh; and a minimum monthly pension of Rs 1,000 under a social security scheme.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned the Congress government in Rajasthan not to offer freebies blindly as such steps will increase the desert state’s debt drastically. PM Modi was speaking at the launch of two Metro lines in Pune earlier this month. “Emptying a state’s treasury for selfish reasons impacts the people the most…it impacts the future of the youth,” he said, referring to what he often calls the “revdi culture”.
Senior BJP Leader C.P. Joshi called the free electricity offered by the Gehlot government as a gimmick, alleging that the Gehlot government first raised the power rates and was now distributing free electricity during the election campaign. Rajasthan BJP leader Pramod Vashisht said the free smartphone scheme of the CM was sending a negative message. “People are so fed up with the outdated handsets that they have started saying that they don’t need it,” he said.
Even the free power scheme is a big scam, the invisible charges in the bills have been pinching consumers, alleged Vashisht. Asked about the sops being offered by the state government ahead of Assembly elections, he asked, “Why has the state government woken up from its slumber just before elections? What was it doing for over four-and-a-half years?”
“The biggest issue in the state is that of law and order. Five to seven rapes are taking place in the state every day, including in cities like Jaipur,” said Vashisht.
He criticised the Gehlot dispensation as a government of advertisements. “The freebies are being offered to distract voters’ attention from issues of high crime rate and corruption in government,” he said, pointing to lack of action against the accused in paper leaks that took place during Gehlot’s term.
Economists point out that under Gehlot, the state’s fiscal deficit—excess expenditure over its revenue—might jump to 4.36% of the state’s gross state domestic product (GSDP) as against the set target of 3.98% of GSDP.
However, a state Congress leader justified the announcements on smartphones and free power made by Gehlot. “There is proper budget for these welfare schemes in the state budget. The CM is delivering on his promises in the social sector,” said the former MLA.
Analyst Gautam Mukherjee said in a TV interview that when BJP offers welfare schemes, it calls it structural in nature—make it possible for people to have a road up to their house or provide water connection or gas—as this sort of thing they feel is structural in nature as it improves the quality of life of the citizens. In the case of the Congress, the model goes back to Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council where she had people who advocated a handout to everybody who was unemployed or women, and some of this was implemented. “It is like something for nothing, it is a subsidy that attracts people.”
Gehlot’s offer to people on free emergency care, even at private clinics, earlier sparked huge protests in the state with doctors. Rajasthan voters are known to follow the tradition of not re-electing an incumbent government. While the BJP is hoping that the “revolving door” system will bring it back to power, Gehlot seems to be doing his best to change the tradition and win himself a second successive term.
The elections to the Assembly are likely to be held before December. In the current 200-member Assembly, the Congress has 107 seats, while the BJP and others’ tally is 93, according to the Assembly’s website.