In a 2006 working paper — How Small is Zero Price? The True Value of Free Products – for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, Kristina Shampaner and Dan Ariely examined the psychology of “free” offers. In a series of experiments, they demonstrated that when people are faced with a choice between two products, one of them free, “they overreact to the free product as if zero price meant not only a low cost of buying the product, but also increased consumers’ valuation of the product itself”.
For example, asked to choose quickly between a Rs 100 gift voucher for FREE and a Rs200 voucher for Rs 50, most instinctively opted for the first, and free, option though the second offered a higher value. Personally, however, I know many who are wary of freebies because usually they are of inferior quality and almost always come with strings attached. But aversion to freebies is more often a matter of pride rather than judgement. On the majority however, the word ‘free’ almost works magic.
Few understand this weakness and exploit it better than our politicians. It has become such an accepted electoral tradition that parties not offering freebies now risk losing votes. From a bottle of country liquor and small money meant to herd simpletons who did not deserve better, the incentives have been upgraded over the years. Mineral water bottles became popular in parched areas (but electric fans were discouraged once candidates realised they could be charged with abetting suicide).
Instead, parties targeted the womenfolk with clothes, gas cylinders, stoves, juicer-mixer-grinders and colour television sets. The farmers got motors to pump water. The youth demanded more than customary bicycles and got laptops. The religious were already enjoying free supplies of Pongal goodies. Then, Jayalalithaa took it to another level by offering 4-gram gold mangalsutra to every bride.
Since election manifestos bearing such outlandish promises are released typically before election dates are actually notified, these escape the Election Commission’s scrutiny. Finally, that may change. Observing that freebies promised by political parties in their election manifestos to lure voters shake the very roots of free and fair polls, the Supreme Court has directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines to regulate the content of election manifestos.
"Although, the law is obvious that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be construed as 'corrupt practice' under Section 123 of the Representation of the People (RP) Act, the reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people,” said the bench of justices P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi, adding that "a separate head for guidelines for election manifesto released by a political party can also be included in the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties & Candidates".
This judgement is absolutely critical because freebies not only influence the voter’s judgement, but doles such as free land, housing or electricity also drain the state exchequer. There is a not-so-thin line between welfare policies and mass bribery. Subsidised foodgrain for BPL families staves off starvation, but gifting laptops to poor students does not necessarily bring them better education.
Only this week, parents in Kenya have strongly opposed the government’s ambitious plan to give away laptops to 1.2 million schoolchildren every year. Insisting that the money should instead go towards raising teachers’ salaries and feeding children, the Kenya National Association of Parents warned that the laptop programme was bound to fail in a country that needs 42,000 classrooms.
Kenya has a shortfall of 40,000 teachers and more than 200,000 teachers in public schools are currently striking over unpaid housing, transport and hardship allowances promised 16 years ago. The parents pointed out that most teachers were not trained to implement the ‘laptop project’ and that the scheme may lead to embezzlement in a system that “lost” 70 million textbooks in a free primary-school education program.
But, much like the white elephants rolled out back home, the Kenyan government led by President Uhuru Kenyatta, is determined to implement the project that will cost $615 million in three years. It has roped in Microsoft to train teachers and plans to build storage facilities for computers in all schools and install solar energy panels to charge the $100 laptops where there is no electricity supply.
Sounds familiar. While a second generation Aakash tablet will cost the government less than $100 in subsidy at the student price of Rs 1500, the Hewlett Packard laptops being handed out by Akhilesh Yadav’s government in Uttar Pradesh cost Rs 19,000 each. The Rs 2,400 crore tender was the world’s biggest laptop deal ever. Out of 15 lakh, only 80,000 laptops have been distributed so far because the CM realised that physically handing out laptops takes a lot of time. More than 3 lakh sets are lying in different storehouse even as fresh supply from HP is awaited.
Nobody, it appears, bothered to ask the young CM how many students in rural Uttar Pradesh will be able to operate the laptops for “educational” (or any) purpose, how many can afford internet connection in the hinterland, how many hours of electricity the villages get or how far internet connectivity runs in his state. Akhilesh is probably just happy to see happy young faces when he hands out the dole. And which student in his right mind would not be floored by such a gift?
In 2004, the BJP had to sack Lalji Tandon as AB Vajpayee’s election campaign manager after a freebie tragedy. Tandon and his men threw a bundle of sarees among a crowd of nearly 5000 women in a small Lucknow park, triggering a stampede that killed 21. Why did those women risk their lives for sarees worth Rs 40 each? Were they really so poor?
I dare not doubt anyone’s desperation. But last month, a good friend gave me reason to by sharing his amazement from Bhubaneswar. On 19 June, chief minister Naveen Patnaik distributed 5000 mobile phones free among farmers. Among the beneficiaries were apparently many who came from far off districts, spending Rs 750-900 to collect a thousand rupee phone for ‘free’.
Say what, it will be a tall order for the SC and the EC.