In an important election year that’s bound to see political parties go all out to woo voters with tall promises and free gifts galore, the Supreme Court has sought to play spoiler. On Friday, it directed the Election Commission (EC) to frame guidelines to regulate the contents of parties’ poll manifestos, holding that the freebies they promise vitiate the electoral process.
Maintaining that such practices could not be construed as corrupt under the Representation of People’s (RP) Act, the court, however, held: “The reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies undoubtedly influences all people. It shakes the roots of free and fair elections to a great degree.”
Refusing to frame the guidelines itself, a bench of justice P Sathasivam and justice Ranjan Gogoi directed the poll panel to consult various parties and include guidelines for monitoring poll manifestos in its Model Code of Conduct. “Considering there is no enactment that directly governs the contents of manifestos, we hereby direct the Election Commission to frame guidelines for the same in consultation with all recognized political parties.”
It asked the EC to "take up this task as early as possible".
The order came on a petition by advocate S Subramaniam Balaji, challenging the decision of the present (AIADMK) and previous (DMK) Tamil Nadu governments to distribute freebies as promised in their poll manifestos.
The court said that though the EC did not have the authority to regulate manifestos - published before the code of conduct kicks in - it could still make an exception by bringing them under the code as they are directly associated with the election process.This could curb the rampant practice of parties promising and distributing freebies - from saris and foodgrains to laptops and colour TVs - after coming to power.
The Congress didn't agree with the court's views.
"For many years, the EC has been conducting free and fair elections. In our manifestos, we offer a comprehensive policy of development in different sectors. Unfortunately, the media only highlights the laptops and freebies," said spokesperson Sanjay Nirupam.
But there were others like the BJP that welcomed it.
"This is a step in the direction of reforming the poll process and creating a level-playing field," said party spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman.
"Freebies have been a subject of great controversy in the past. The SC direction is very clear and I am sure the election commission will comply with it," said former chief election commissioner SY Qureshi.
"Based on consultations with parties, the SC direction can be another addition to the model code of conduct or the EC can even recommend an amendment to the RP Act."
Senior Supreme Court advocate Dushyant Dave, however, felt the court missed an opportunity to lay down a good law. "Promising freebies is a corrupt practice. The court could have said this is impermissible and directed parties not to indulge in it."
Nilotpal Basu of the CPM said bigger problems plagued the poll process, such as use of money and muscle power, and paid news.