'Freebie budget going beyond regular budget': SC notice to Centre, EC on parties' poll promises

The SC bench sought a response from the poll body and the government to a PIL seeking a direction to seize the election symbol or de-register a political party that promises or distributes freebies from public funds

FP Staff January 25, 2022 16:08:08 IST
'Freebie budget going beyond regular budget': SC notice to Centre, EC on parties' poll promises

Representational image. PTI

The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued notices to the Centre and the Election Commission regarding guidelines on "irrational" freebies promised by political parties before polls, calling it a "serious issue" as sometimes freebie budget goes beyond the regular budget.

It has sought a response from the poll body and the Union government to a PIL seeking a direction to seize the election symbol or de-register a political party that promises or distributes freebies from public funds.

A bench comprising Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and justices AS Bopanna and Hima Kohli observed, "It is a serious issue and freebies budget goes beyond regular budget. Even though it is not a corrupt practice but it creates a uneven playing field."

"Within the limited scope, we had directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines. But subsequently, they conducted only one meeting after our directions. They sought views from political parties and thereafter I do not know what happened,"the CJI said.

Justice Kohli remarked, "You (petitioner) have been selective in your approach (in naming parties). The CJI noted, "You have named only two in affidavit."

What does the plea say?

The PIL filed by BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay cites the Aam Aadmi Party's poll promise of Rs 1,000 per month to every woman aged 18, ahead of the Punjab Assembly election.

It also stated examples like, "Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) promised Rs 2,000 to each woman to lure them. Thereafter, Congress not only promised Rs 2,000 per month and eight gas cylinders per year to every housewife but also promised a scooty to every college-going girl, Rs 20,000 after passing Class 12, Rs 15,000 after passing 10th grade, Rs 10,000 after passing 8th class and Rs 5,000 after passing 5th."

The plea said that there should be "a total ban on such populist measures to gain undue political favour from voters as they violate the Constitution and the EC should take suitable deterrent measures."

The bench took note of submissions of senior advocate Vikas Singh, appearing for Upadhyay, that a law need to be framed on the issue and steps like seizure of party symbols or taking back the registration of parties or both may be thought of as ultimately it is the citizens who have to pay up.

It also mentioned, "For UP Assembly elections, Congress promised a smartphone to every girl studying in Class 12, a scooty to every girl pursuing graduation, free public transport for women, eight free gas cylinders per year to every housewife, free medical treatment up to Rs 10 lakh per family."

The plea also claims that promise and distribution of "irrational freebies" could unduly influence the voters.

"It shakes the roots of a free and fair election, disturbs level playing field and vitiates purity of the election process," Mr Upadhyay's plea stated, adding that the "recent trend" of offering freebies with an eye on elections is "not only the greatest threat to the survival of democratic values but also injures the spirit of the Constitution".

What did the SC bench observe?

The Supreme Court bench noted that even it has in the past observed that freebie is not a level playing field and that parties make more promises to win elections.

"The parties who make more promises have the advantage and chance of winning the elections even though it does not amount to corrupt practices under the law," the bench said.

It took note of the fact that the poll panel has conducted only one meeting on the issue of promise of freebies during the polls after the apex court's judgment on the issue.

The apex court had directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines on this. They have framed guidelines but without any teeth, the senior lawyer responded.

At the outset, Singh said "In states, having huge debt, parties are promising freebies and please see, ultimately it is the public, whose money is promised to be given."

"Every party is doing the same thing and there has to be some legislation on this aspect," he said, "adding I do not want to name any party."

"If every party has been doing the same thing then why in the affidavit you have named only two (political) parties," the bench said and asked Singh to read the judgment of the apex court on the issue.

"I do not understand. You enlighten us about the second part of it that is legislation and legislation for what purpose," the CJI said.

The bench asked the lawyer not to name a state and refer to the pleadings to suggest the remedy to control the menace.

"Assuming for a minute, we will issue notice and ask the Centre and the Election Commission to file affidavits. For us, we must know how we are going to control all this," the bench said.

Some order can be passed to take away the poll symbol or recognition or not to grant the recognition to a particular party who engages in this kind of activity, the lawyer said.

Referring to upcoming polls, the bench said that the elections will be over the time some orders are passed.

The plea called it an "unethical practice", akin to bribing the electorate at the cost of the exchequer to stay in power. "It must be avoided to preserve democratic principles and practices," the plea added.

Last week, the Supreme Court had said it would consider listing for hearing a plea — also filed by Upadhyay — seeking a direction to the EC to ensure that political parties publish details regarding criminal cases of candidates along with the reason for their selection on their websites.

With inputs from agencies

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