Proposed Curbs On Promising Freebies Before Elections Worries Opposition Parties?


As the battle for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections gets going, the Election Commission (EC)’s move for amending the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) so that all political parties apprise the electorate of the financial viability of their poll promises has upset the opposition parties.

Their hope to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal among the voters across the country by pledging a host of freebies looks dashed–though the issue of freebies itself could be fiercely political in the coming days.

As it appears, the initiative by the EC is not on its own. It follows the Supreme Court’s nudge to consider the issue as unreasonable freebies are seen to affect the state’s fiscal health.

Of course, the EC officials say the poll panel’s move is not related to the hearing by the apex Court. It was on the cards in the form of a proforma that is to be part of the MCC.

The Aam Aadmi Party considers its victories in Delhi and Punjab largely due to the promise of free water, electricity etc. The DMK in Tamil Nadu and the Left in Kerala too has wooed their voters with a phew of welfare measures. Therefore, they are obviously alarmed at the EC’s move.

They see the move to curb the promise of freebies as an attack on them and an attempt at giving an advantage to Modi and the BJP.
The PM has repeatedly warned that the politics of freebies or ‘revdi culture’ won’t leave governments with money to implement other welfare programmes effectively to reach the targeted sections of the poor.

Defending their stand, these opposition parties accuse Modi and the BJP of being against the freebies for the poor while allegedly opening up the government’s coffers for the rich corporates.

They argue the issue is not freebies but welfare measures for the poor and any curb on them before the polls affect the concept of free and fair elections.

The BJP holds the view that these parties promise everything under the sun to win the elections and then, on coming to power, blame the Centre for not providing enough funds for this purpose.

On October 4, the ECI said it “proposes to supplement existing MCC guidelines and mandate political parties to inform voters at large about the financial ramifications of their promises in manifesto.” It said it was “aimed at assessing the feasibility of implementation of such promises.” It sought feedback from political parties by October 19, after which it will make the required amendments in the MCC.

The opposition has said the EC’s latest stand is a departure from the position that the EC has taken on the same issue in the affidavits it had filed in court. According to them, the EC had then said it would be difficult for it to become the arbiter of what is or isn’t a reasonable poll promise, what is a freebie and what isn’t, because of problems of definition – “… freebies can have different impacts on society, economy, equity…”, and “… both ‘freebie’ and ‘irrational’ are subjective and open to interpretation.”

They also point out that the EC had also declined to be part of a committee proposed by the apex court to look into the issue.

However, the EC officials hold that the proposal that political parties should be made to state how they plan to finance their poll promises is not connected to the political debate about “freebies.” They hold that the two issues are fundamentally different, legally and principally.

One is defining freebies and regulating them by legislation or court directions. The other is only on disclosure and does not need a new law or court order, and does not affect the political parties’ right to announce what they consider appropriate, they say.

Under the new proposal of the EC, a political party has to only fill out the form since it will become a part of the MCC. In case they do not, then ECI will inform voters that they have failed to do so. That is all.

Interestingly, three former chief election commissioners have backed the EC proposal to add a form detailing the fiscal implications of all poll promises made by political parties in the MCC. “It is another bold step which will have a far-reaching positive impact in ushering an era of financial probity and reforms in the electoral process,” said Sunil Arora, who was CEC from 2019 to 2021.

Former CEC Navin Chawla, who served from April 2009 to July 2010, said, “it is a wholly welcome and wholesome step. I believe it is within the power of the Commission. We do have the MCC, and this falls well within the mandate of that. Various courts have upheld this power of the EC in several judgments have upheld the MCC.”

Former CEC N Gopalaswami, who held the post from 2006 to 2009, said “This is nothing new, the Supreme Court itself said that any political party giving freebies must indicate how they intend to fund them, EC is following that.”

However, another former CEC S Y Quraishi, who was in office from 2010 to 2012, said the commission did not come into the picture on its own and was nudged by the Supreme Court. “The first guidelines for manifestos came in 2013 when SC directed ECI to formulate them in consultation with the political parties. Now, SC has again directed the poll body to get involved in the debate a second time based on new public interest litigation. The EC does not have either the mandate or the wherewithal to sit in judgment on what promises in the manifestos are feasible and what are not. This is the domain of the legislatures. They should not be debating it. The EC should strictly stay away from that debate as a constitutional body.”

(The author is a senior journalist and a well-known political commentator)

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