Tuesday, September 27, 2022

SC seeks Centre to curb freebies for elections

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The Supreme Court asked the Central Government on Tuesday to take a decision on the problem of political parties providing nonsensical giveaways from public monies during election campaigns.

A bench of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justices Krishna Murari and Hima Kohli ordered the Centre to investigate if the Finance Commission’s recommendations may be used to find a solution. During the hearing, the CJI sought the advice of senior lawyer Kapil Sibal, who was in court for another issue, on political parties’ giveaways during the election campaign.

“Mr Sibal is here. As a senior parliamentarian. What is your view?” CJI asked.

“It’s a serious issue but difficult to control politically. The Finance Commission when it does allocation to various states, they can take into account the debt of the state and the quantum of freebies. The Finance Commission is the appropriate authority to deal with it. Maybe we can invite the Commission to look into this aspect. The Centre cannot be expected to issue directions,” Sibal said.

The court then directed Additional Solicitor General KM Nataraj, who was representing the Central Government, to seek the Commission’s opinion on Sibal’s recommendations.

“Mr Nataraj, please ask Finance Commission to look into this. Please see how a debate can be initiated,” said the bench while posting it for hearing on August 3.

The Supreme Court was considering a petition seeking an order to take electoral emblems and deregister political parties that offered unreasonable giveaways from public funding.

During the hearing, attorney Amit Sharma, standing for the Election Commission of India (ECI), told the supreme court that prior rulings had concluded that a manifesto constituted part of a political party’s promises and proposed that the Central government may pass legislation to address the issue.

ASG Nataraj stated that it was the responsibility of the Election Commission of India.

“Why don’t you say that you have nothing to do with it and the ECI has to take a call? I am asking if the Government of India is considering whether it’s a serious issue or not? You take a stand and then we will decide whether these freebies are to be continued or not. Why is the Centre hesitating to take a stand?” asked CJI.

The petitioner in the case, advocate Ashwini Upadhyay, called the matter “serious” and urged that the election panel prohibit state and national political parties from providing freebies.

Upadhyay said there is a total debt of several lakh crores in states. “We are on our way to becoming Sri Lanka,” he also added.

Previously, the Supreme Court had sought a response from the Centre and ECI on the petition and decided to hear the matter, noting that it is a significant problem that may influence voters and damage the fairness of elections.
In his petition, Upadhyay argues that political parties’ arbitrary pledges of nonsensical gifts for unjust benefit and to sway voters in their favour are akin to bribery and undue influence.

It stated that promising or distributing illogical freebies from public monies before to elections might unfairly influence voters, upset the foundations of a free and fair election, and disrupt the level playing field, in addition to tainting the electoral process’s purity.

“Direct and declare that promise/distribution of irrational freebies from the public fund before the election to lure voters is analogous to the Bribery and Undue Influence under Section 171B and Section 171C of the IPC,” the plea stated.

It further sought direction to the ECI to insert an additional condition: “political party shall not promise/distribute irrational freebies from the public fund before the election” in paras 6A, 6B and 6C of the Election Symbols Order 1968.

It said that “rather than promising better rule of law, equal pay for equal work, clean water, equal quality education, quality healthcare, quality infrastructure, speedy justice, free legal aid, citizen charter, judicial charter, efficient police system, effective administrative system; political parties arbitrarily promised irrational freebies from the public fund”.

According to the petition, freebies are not associated with job growth, development, or agriculture, and people are enticed to vote in their favour by magical promises.

The petition added that it has become fashionable for political parties to announce free electricity in their election manifestos, despite the fact that the state has not been able to provide electricity for more than 16 hours and a large population does not even have access to electricity, which has been recognised as a fundamental right.

“Political parties announce unemployment allowance in the manifesto which makes youth lazy and dampen the working culture of the people. Rather than giving unemployment allowance, executives should provide a quality education so that youth can create job opportunities on their own. In this process, honest taxpayers have been made a mute spectator. Petitioner submits that healthcare infrastructure is not good as it was seen during Covid times but political parties are ignorant of it,” the plea further submitted.

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