Manoj Jha writes: Election Commission’s proposal on freebies and election promises raises questions of institutional overreach

Source: The post is based on an article “Manoj Jha writes: Election Commission’s proposal on freebies and election promises raises questions of institutional overreach” published in The Indian Express on 7th October 2022.

Syllabus: GS 2 – Electoral Reforms

Relevance: recent proposal of the Election Commission of India and freebies.

News: The Election Commission of India (ECI) has recently issued a letter proposing mandatory disclosure of the financial implications of the promises made in manifestos by political parties.

According to the ECI, it will enable healthy debate on the financial implications and fiscal sustainability of promises made by political parties and it is also necessary for conducting the free and fair elections.

What is the recent proposal of the ECI and what are its benefits?

The proposal requires political parties to disclose the financial implications of the promises they make in their manifestos.

However, the idea of communicating electors about the fiscal rationale of promises is already the part of the Model Code of Conduct from 2015. But ECI is now proposing a form for such disclosures.

If this proposal is included in the MCC, it will require parties to explain about the target of particular promise, the extent of coverage, the number of likely beneficiaries, and the cost of implementing it.

It will provide a framework under which a manifesto can be assessed by the voter from the perspective of its financial feasibility.

It may also make parties treat manifesto preparation as a responsible exercise meant to convince rather than attract the voter.

However, it is being argued that ECI should not get involved into the implementation of manifestos as it is the political and administrative responsibility of the party that comes to power.

What are the stands of the Election Commission of India (ECI) and the Supreme Court (SC) on freebies?

Election Commission of India (ECI)

The ECI in April 2022 told the Supreme Court that it cannot de-register political parties for offering freebies to voters.

It is up to the voters to decide whether the distribution of freebies is financially feasible or such policies have an adverse effect on the economic health of the state.

But now it wants political parties to elaborate on the rationale for announcing such promises and their financing plan.

Supreme Court (SC)

SC in S. Subramaniam Balaji vs. State of Tamil Nadu (2013) has observed that the provisions of the Representation of the People Act (1951) place no limitation on the power of the political parties to make promises in their election manifesto.

The Court has further added that the manifesto of a political party is a statement of its policy and the question of implementing it arises only if the political party forms a government.

It upheld the right of parties to make electoral promises even if they involved distribution of consumer goods. It was held that such a promise would not lead to a corrupt practice.

Further the freebie schemes can be invalidated if they will be financed by budgetary allocations cleared by the legislature.

The court also suggested ECI to come up with guidelines to prevent useless promises and ensure a level playing field for the parties.

However, the guidelines of ECI were not successful in getting the information from the political parties as parties made only routine and ambiguous disclosures.

Moreover, the recent proposal of ECI raises many concerns.

What are the concerns with the Election Commission of India?

Article 324 of the Constitution defines role and responsibilities of the ECI. The ECI in that past has avoided in intervening any other matter other than conduction free and fair elections.

It seems that ECI is acting according to the direction given by the government which is not a good sign for the health of democracy in the country.

Further, the debate on freebies shows that there is a lack of understating on socioeconomic realities of the nation and the welfare state enshrined in the Constitution.

The ECI is considered to be the guardian of public value and democracy. However, in recent times, some of its positions have raised concerns.

The executive controls the ECI’s finances and personnel appointments and it has been observed that favourable election commissioners are appointed to limit the agency’s authority internally.

This damages the credibility of the institution which was supposed to ensure a level playing field for all parties.

Therefore, ECI should follow the Constitution of India and a balance between institutions should be maintained.

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