Election Commission’s political plunge erodes its role as a neutral watchdog

Source: The post is based on an article Election Commission’s political plunge erodes its role as a neutral watchdog” published in The Indian Express on 6th October 2022.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Electoral Reforms in India

Relevance: freebies and the problems associated with the recent proposal of the Election Commission 

News: The Election Commission has recently decided to amend the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) and for this it has sent proposal to the political parties.

This new amendment will require political parties to measure the cost involved in the promises made in the manifesto and explain the funding of these promises.

It will also require to assess the impact of the promises on fiscal sustainability of the state.

What does the existing guidelines under the MCC say?

The existing guidelines under the MCC require political parties and candidates to explain the logic behind the promises made and the possible ways to finance such promises.

But parties make routine declarations and do not provide enough information. Therefore, the new proposal will bring more changes in the MCC.

What is the new amendment?

It will require political parties to declare the extent of coverage of promises in terms of individuals/households along with expected expenditure.

Parties will be expected to provide details regarding all such promises separately.

They would also need to show the income source required to fulfil all electoral promises.

It is a welcome step as it will make more information public. However, there are many problems associated with the proposal.

What are the problems with the amendment?

Political parties: It would raise fear amongst the political parties to which expenditure to cut, or which assets to monetise or sell, or borrow for raising resources to fulfil a promise.

Demanding such detailed information would put opposition parties in a disadvantageous position as it would be easier for the party in power to get approval for the scheme.

All political parties would need to have expertise in fiscal issues to provide information in such detail which is even lacked in the government.

Election Commission: It will bring burden on the EC by bringing such disclosures a part of the Model Code of Conduct. It will also be difficult for the EC to judge on the feasibility of the promises parties make to voters. It can lead EC to dive in the politics.

Further, it is not clear how the EC will view this level of information as it does not have such capabilities.

Therefore, intervening into freebies and being a judge can lead to a negative image of the EC and it can endanger its hard-won credibility.

Why is this proposal against the previous stand of the Election Commission on freebies?

EC has stated in an affidavit to the Supreme Court that “irrational” and “freebie’ are subjective and open to interpretation. A promise of one political party may be a freebie for another and vice versa.

It also declined to be part of a committee proposed by the SC to look into the issue.

It further said that it would be difficult for it to become the arbiter of what is or isn’t a reasonable poll promise because of problems of definition.

Moreover, when the freebie issue was brought into the SC, the EC tried to stay away from the issue by saying that it lacks powers over state policy making.

It has also acknowledged in one of its affidavits that “freebies can have different impacts on society, economy, equity, depending upon the situation, context and time period.”

What can be the course of action?

First, the ECI should move cautiously and make sure that the level playing field in a democracy is not disturbed.

Second, it is important to have an independent fiscal body that has the expertise to evaluate Budget provisions for the Centre and the states. Finance Commissions set up in the past have recommended setting up such an institution.

Third, the judgment on freebies should be left on the people and EC should set aside itself. Moreover, FRBM Act ensure check and balances and encourage fiscal discipline in governance.

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