SC says freebies to influence voters’ serious issue, asks Centre for way to curb it

The top court was hearing a PIL by Upadhyay against the announcements made by political parties for inducing voters, through freebies, during elections.

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday flagged the issue of political parties promising freebies to influence voters as serious, and asked the Central government to examine the matter so as to control promises of freebies to induce the electorate.

A bench, headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana asked the Centre, to find out from the Finance Commission, if there is a possibility of curbing state governments and political parties from promising and distributing irrational freebies to induce voters.

Initially, the bench queried Additional Solicitor General K.M. Nataraj to find out Centre’s stand on the issue.

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“You take a stand whether freebies should continue or not,” the bench, also comprising Justices Krishna Murari and Hima Kohli, told Nataraj, representing the Central government.

On the other hand, counsel representing the Election Commission submitted that it was held in previous judgments that a manifesto was part of the promises of a political party.

At this, the bench replied: “We are on freebies to bribe the electorate. Now if you say it’s hands off for you, then what is the purpose of the Election Commission of India?”

In April this year, the EC told the Supreme Court that offering freebies either before or after the elections is a policy decision of the political party, and it cannot regulate state policies and decisions taken by the parties.

The EC counsel suggested that the Central government could bring a law to deal with the issue, but Nataraj suggested that it falls under the domain of the EC.

Taking exceptions to Nataraj’s submissions, the bench asked the Central government to take a stand on the matter.

“Why don’t you say that you have nothing to do with it and the ECI has to take a call? I’m asking if the government of India is considering whether it’s a serious issue or not?

“Why are you hesitating to take a stand? You take a stand and then we’ll decide whether these freebies are to be continued or not,” it told Nataraj.

At this juncture, the bench turned to senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was present in the courtroom for another matter. “Mr. Sibal is here as a senior parliamentarian. What is your view?…. How to control these freebies?”

Sibal said freebies were a “serious issue” and it would be not fair to put the liability on the Central government. He said this issue had to be tackled at the state government level and suggested tapping into the expertise of the Finance Commission.

Citing that the Finance Commission is an independent body, Sibal added that while making allocations to the states, it can examine debts of each individual state and could scrutinise whether offers of freebies are viable, or not.

The bench then told Nataraj: “Please find out from the Finance Commission. Will list this sometime next week… what is the authority to initiate debate…”.

The top court scheduled the matter for further hearing on August 3.

Petitioner advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay termed the issue serious and submitted that EC should bar the state and national political parties from giving such things. “There should be some reasonable promise,” said Upadhyay citing a total debt of Rs 6.5 lakh crore. “We’re on our way to becoming Sri Lanka,” he said.

The top court was hearing a PIL by Upadhyay against the announcements made by political parties for inducing voters, through freebies, during elections.

In an affidavit, the ECI said: “Offering/distribution of any freebies either before or after the election is a policy decision of the party concerned and whether such policies are financially viable or its adverse effect on the economic health of the state is a question that has to be considered and decided by the voters of the state.”

It added: “The Election Commission cannot regulate state policies and decisions which may be taken by the winning party when they form the government. Such an action without enabling provisions in the law, would be an overreach of powers.”

Upadhyay’s PIL claimed that the promise or distribution of irrational freebies from public funds before polls shakes the roots of a free and fair election, and vitiates the purity of the election process. The plea sought a direction from the top court to declare that the promise of irrational freebies, which are not for public purposes, from public funds before election, violates Articles 14, 162, 266(3), and 282 of the Constitution.

The plea contended that a condition should be imposed on the political party that they would not promise or distribute irrational freebies from the public fund. The EC responded that it “may result in a situation where the political parties will lose their recognition even before they display their electoral performance”. The top court had issued notice on the plea on January 25.

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