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SC issues notice to Centre, ECI over ‘irrational’ poll freebies

By Priyanka Verma 
Updated Date
SC issues notice to Centre, ECI over ‘irrational’ poll freebies

New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought responses from the Union government and the Election Commission of India (ECI) on the continued ‘tamasha’ of political parties promising or distributing ‘irrational freebies’ using public funds.The court said the matter will be heard again after four weeks.

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The Chief Justice of India said that the Supreme Court, in a different issue, had directed the poll body to frame guidelines on the matter but the poll body held just one meeting whose outcome is unknown.

“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,” N. V. Ramana, the Chief Justice of India, said.

A bench of CJI NV Ramana, Justice AS Bopanna and Justice Hima Kohli was hearing a plea filed by lawyer and BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay saying public funds were being misused by all political parties, pushing states deeper into debt. Senior Advocate Vikas Singh appeared for the petitioner.

The plea seeks directions to the Election Commission to seize election symbols and deregister political parties that promised to distribute irrational freebies from public funds. “Money of the citizens is being misused despite the Election Commission rules,” it said.

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The plea also claims that promise or distribution of irrational freebies from public funds before elections 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”. The court noted that even it has in the past observed that it’s not a level playing field and that parties make more promises to win elections.

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.

‘Purity of election process’

“Promise/distribution of irrational freebies from public fund before election unduly influences the voters, shakes the roots of free-fair election, disturbs level playing field, vitiates the purity of election process and also violates Articles 14, 162, 266(3) and 282,” the plea said.

It highlighted how the ECI had held a meeting with the political parties and issued guidelines which mandated that their election manifestos should not contain anything repugnant to the Model Code of Conduct.

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The ECI had said that though the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoined upon the State to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and, therefore, there could be no objection to the promise of such welfare measures in election manifestos, political parties should “avoid making promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise”.

The election body, in the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, had expected poll manifestos to “reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled”.

Mr. Singh submitted that arbitrary promises of irrational freebies violated the ECI’s mandate for free and fair elections, and distributing private goods-services, which were not for public purposes, from public funds clearly violated the Constitution.

Rather than promising better rule of law, equal pay for equal work, clean water, equal quality education, quality healthcare, quality infrastructure, speedy justice, free legal aid, citizen charter, judicial charter, efficient police system, effective administrative system, political parties arbitrarily promised irrational freebies from public fund, he argued.

“The fulcrum of democracy is the electoral process. If the integrity of electoral process is compromised then the notion of representation becomes vacuous. Distribution of money and promise of freebies has reached alarming levels with elections being countermanded several times,” the petition said.

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