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Elections can't be fair with parties promising freebies in manifestos: SC

New Delhi:  Freebies promised by political parties in their election manifestos to lure voters shake the roots of free and fair polls, the Supreme Court observed today as it directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines for regulating contents of manifestos.

Holding that such promises by political parties under present law does not amount to corrupt practice, the apex court, however, said that election manifesto released by parties can be included in the Model Code of Conduct.

"Although, the law is obvious that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be construed as 'corrupt practice' under Section 123 of Representation of People's (RP) Act, the reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree," bench of justices P Sathasivam and Ranjan Gogoi said.

"Considering that there is no enactment that directly governs the contents of the election manifesto, we hereby direct the Election Commission to frame guidelines for the same in consultation with all the recognized political parties," the bench said adding "a separate head for guidelines for election manifesto released by a political party can also be included in the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties & Candidates".

The apex court has told the Election Commission to act on it. Reuters

The apex court has told the Election Commission to act on it. Reuters

The judgement can have wide ramifications and can put a curb on political parties for promising different types of freebies like distributing laptops, TVs, grinders and mixers, electric fans, four gram gold thali and free foodgrains for wooing the voters.

The election manifesto of parties will also come under the scrutiny of the Commission.

The bench said though the election manifesto is published before the code of conduct comes into force, the Commission can make an exception by bringing its within code of conduct.

"We are mindful of the fact that generally political parties release their election manifesto before the announcement of election date, in that scenario, strictly
speaking, the Election Commission will not have the authority to regulate any act which is done before the announcement of the date.

"Nevertheless, an exception can be made in this regard as the purpose of election manifesto is directly associated with the election process," the bench said

The apex court agreed with the election commission's submission that freebies promised by the parties disturb the level-playing field among players contesting the polls and vitiates the election process and said that separate legislation be made by Parliament on the issue.

"We hereby direct the Election Commission to take up this task as early as possible owing to its utmost importance. We also record the need for a separate legislation to be passed by the legislature in this regard for governing the political parties in our democratic society," it said.

The bench, however, concluded that the promises in an manifesto under the present law cannot be declared corrupt practice.

"After examining and considering the parameters laid in Section 123 of RP Act, we arrived at a conclusion that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be read into Section 123 for declaring it to be a corrupt practice. Thus, promises in the election manifesto do not constitute as a corrupt practice under the prevailing law," the court said.

It refused to frame guidelines saying "this is not a case of legislative vacuum where the judiciary can apply its inherent power to frame guidelines" and said that under RP Act
the Election Commission can regulate the manifesto.

"If we are to declare that every kind of promises made in the election manifesto is a corrupt practice, this will be flawed. Since all promises made in the election manifesto are not necessarily promising freebies per se... Therefore, it will be misleading to construe that all promises in the election manifesto would amount to corrupt practice.

"Likewise, it is not within the domain of this Court to legislate what kind of promises can or cannot be made in the election manifesto," it said.

The bench passed the order on a petition filed by an advocate S Subramaniam Balaji, challenging the decision of present and previous Tamil Nadu government decision to
distribute freebies as promised by the AIADMK and DMK parties in their manifesto.

The petitioner contended that competitive populism resorted to by political parties was unconstitutional besides being a huge drain on the state exchequer.

The petitioner had contended that freebies offered by the Tamil Nadu governments amounted to bribing the voters and ran counter to the constitutional mandate of free and fair elections.

PTI