Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment

Source: The post is based on the article “Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment” published in The Hindu on 28th August 2022.

What is the News?

The Supreme Court has decided to reconsider the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu 2013 judgment which held that promises in the election manifesto do not constitute a “corrupt practice” under the poll law.

What is Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment?

Background: In the 2006 Tamil Nadu elections, the DMK party released its election manifesto announcing a scheme of free distribution of colour television sets (CTVs) to each and every household if the party was voted to power. The party won the elections, and it distributed TV sets across the State.

Similarly, in the 2011 elections, AIADMK also announced its election manifesto with free gifts to “equalise” the gifts offered by the DMK

Against this, Balaji, a resident of Tamil Nadu, challenged the schemes introduced by the parties in the Supreme Court.

What were the arguments put up by the petitioners?

The petitioner argued that the promises of free distribution of non-essential commodities in an election manifesto amount to electoral bribe under Section 123 of the RP Act. 

The Comptroller and Auditor General of India has a duty to examine expenditures even before they are deployed. 

The distribution of goods to certain sections of people was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

What was the judgment of the Supreme Court?

The court held that promises by a political party cannot constitute a ‘corrupt practice’ on its part. 

This is because only an individual candidate, not his party, can commit a ‘corrupt practice’ under the RP Act by promising free gifts.

However, the court agreed that freebies create an uneven playing field. It had asked the Election Commission of India to consult political parties and issue guidelines on the election manifesto and make it a part of the Model Code of Conduct.

Why is the Supreme Court reconsidering this judgment?

The Supreme Court has said that freebies may create a situation wherein the State government cannot provide basic amenities due to a lack of funds and the State is pushed towards imminent bankruptcy.

Hence, a transparent debate before the three-judge Bench should be held on whether an enforceable judicial order can stop political parties from promising and distributing ‘irrational freebies’. 

Significance: This revisit by the Supreme Court on its earlier judgment is unique as the court is exploring whether judicial parameters can be set on a purely political act of promising freebies.

Must read: End this asymmetrical conflict over ‘freebies’
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