Legally Speaking | Can political parties be held legally accountable for unfulfilled manifestos? - Hindustan Times
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Legally Speaking | Can political parties be held legally accountable for unfulfilled manifestos?

Apr 24, 2024 09:14 PM IST

Election season brings forth a slew of promises from political parties. However, the legal enforceability of these promises is a complex issue.

Election season is upon us and manifestoes promising free electricity, free rations, free televisions, better employment, and educational institutions, among other assurances, have been released. Ideally, the poll promises are intended to assist the voter in making his/her decision. The logic is that each party informs the voter what they aim to achieve, and the voter based on his/her preference exercises their right to vote. But what happens when the parties and politicians do not enforce their pre-poll promises? Can they be legally mandated to enforce their promises?

People check their names in voting list before casting their ballots during the first round of voting of India's national election in Neemrana, Rajasthan state, India, Friday, April 19, 2024. Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members for the lower house of Parliament for five years, during staggered elections that will run until June 1. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)(AP) PREMIUM
People check their names in voting list before casting their ballots during the first round of voting of India's national election in Neemrana, Rajasthan state, India, Friday, April 19, 2024. Nearly 970 million voters will elect 543 members for the lower house of Parliament for five years, during staggered elections that will run until June 1. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)(AP)

The courts have been asked to comment on party manifestos primarily with regard to freebies and welfare promises.

The Supreme Court (SC) in 2013 in S. Subramaniam Balaji v. The Government of Tamil Nadu & Ors. was called upon to look into the freebies promised by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK)'s manifesto. The petitioner contended that the freebies amounted to a "bribe" and was a corrupt and illegal practice under the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. The freebies and poll promises amounted to unjust inducements to influence the voter. The petition also questioned the validity of the freebies under Article 14 of the Constitution. The SC after hearing the matter ruled:

"As appealing this argument may sound good, the implementation of this suggestion becomes difficult on more than one count. Firstly, if we are to declare that every kind of promise 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, for instance, the election manifesto of a political party promising to develop a particular locality if they come into power, or promising cent percent employment for all young graduates, or such other acts. Therefore, it would 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."

The Court also ruled that the question of implementing the manifesto only arises when the political party comes to power. However, the SC did note that election promises of freebies do influence the voter and affect free and fair elections. Thus, it suggested that the Election Commission along with the political parties frame guidelines for manifestoes.

This led to the modification of the model code of conduct (MCC) to include manifestos as well. Part VIII of the MCC provides general guidelines for the manifesto that they need to align with the ideals and principles of the Constitution. Poll promises may be premised on the Directive Principles of State Policy but parties should avoid making promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on voters, and manifestos are expected to reflect the rationale for the promises and the means to meet the financial requirements for it. However, the above guidelines are not law and cannot be enforced.

Subsequent, to the SC ruling in 2013, the various high courts (HC) have held that the manifestos are not legally enforceable. The Delhi HC in 2014 in Mithilesh Kumar Pandey v. Election Commission of India, while dismissing a petition to enforce the manifesto, the court quoted British judge Lord Denning as saying, “A manifesto issued by a political party in order to get votes is not to be taken as gospel. It is not to be regarded as a bond, signed, sealed and delivered. It may contain — and often does contain — promises or proposals that are quite unworkable or impossible to attain. Very few of the electorate read the manifesto in full.” In the said case, the petitioner questioned a post-poll alliance as violating the manifesto.  

In 2022, the Allahabad HC in Khursheed Ur Rehman S. Rehman vs. State of UP was called upon to decide a plea wherein the petitioner sought to initiate criminal proceedings for the non-fulfilment of manifesto promises by the Bharatiya Janata Party. The HC once again reiterated that poll promises are not binding and cannot be implemented through courts of law. The Court noted, “Even there is no penal provision under any statute to bring the political parties within the clutches of enforcement authorities, in case, they fail to fulfil their promises as made in the election manifesto.”

In the absence of any law, pre-poll promises are not legally enforceable.

However, last year in August 2022, the apex court in Ashvini Kumar Upadhyay v. Union of India, referred to the question of determining if promises made by political parties for the distribution of free goods as part of an election manifesto or election speeches could be deemed corrupt practices under the Representation of People’s Act 1951 to a larger bench. The SC deemed that the judgment laid in S. Subramaniam Balaji needed to be reconsidered. The proceedings in this matter are still pending and may change the present status of election manifestos.

While the law today seems to be clear that poll promises and election speeches are not legally enforceable, the same is not the case for post-poll promises. An interesting development occurred in 2021. The Delhi HC in Najma v. Government of NCT Delhi held that the Delhi government was bound by a promise made by the chief minister (CM) in a press conference. The petitioners claimed that tenants, based on an oral assurance made by the Delhi CM that landlords should not collect rents and allow tenants to continue to stay during the Covid-19 pandemic, did not migrate. The CM had also assured that the government would bear the costs of the rent. The petition was moved to enforce the said assurance. The single-judge bench noted that the CM's public assurance created a legitimate expectation on the part of the citizens and thus the government was bound to enforce the assurance even though no policy existed.

This judgment though was stayed operation and is presently being heard in appeal. However, it does raise questions about oral promises made by government officials. The judgment notes that the government may not fulfil an assurance if it is able to show that fulfilling the same will go against the public interest.

At the end of the day, irrespective of rules the accountability of the government is dependent on an active and well-informed electorate. Political issues are best resolved with active political participation than in courts of law.

Parijata Bharadwaj, a lawyer and researcher based in New Delhi, co-founded the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that offered legal services to adivasis in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal.

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