Amid a raging debate on the financial implication of freebies promised by political parties during elections — or the revdi culture referred to by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the Election Commission of India Tuesday wrote to parties proposing that they spell out ways and means of raising additional resources to finance the promises, and the impact it would have on the fiscal sustainability of the state or the Central government.
Floating a consultation paper, the EC, in its letter to all recognised national and state parties, has prescribed a standardised disclosure proforma for them to declare quantification of the physical coverage of the schemes promised, financial implications of the promise and availability of the financial resources. The EC has asked the parties to furnish their views by October 19.
The proforma seeks details of the extent and expanse of the coverage of the promised scheme (for instance whether it would be universal, for below the poverty line families or community specific) quantification of physical coverage and financial implications, availability of financial resources, and ways and means of raising resources for meeting the additional expenditure to be incurred in fulfilling the promises.
The parties will have to detail how they propose to raise the additional resources to finance the scheme or schemes if voted to power – like whether they plan an increase in tax and non-tax revenues, rationalise expenditure, go for additional borrowings or do it in any other manner.
The impact of the additional resource raising plan for fulfilling the promises on fiscal sustainability of the State or the Union Government will also have to be specified.
The debate on freebies has already divided the political spectrum. The EC’s move drew a sharp reaction from the main Opposition Congress which said “this is simply not the business of the EC. It goes against the very essence and spirit of competitive politics and will be yet another nail on the coffin of democracy in India”.
The RJD, DMK and Shiv Sena too criticised the move. While the AIADMK took a cautious stand, the CPM said it will wait for the EC communication before it formulates its view.
The EC said that disclosure of the promises in a prescribed format will bring in standardisation in the nature of information and help voters compare and make an informed decision. To make these steps mandatory, the EC plans to propose an amendment to the relevant clauses in the Model Code of Conduct.
In its letter, the EC said that while the existing guidelines under the Model Code of Conduct require the political parties and candidates to “explain the rationale for promises” made as well as “possible ways and means to finance such promises,” it has found that the declarations are “quite routine, ambiguous and do not provide adequate information to voters to exercise informed choice in an election”.
The EC recalled that the Supreme Court had examined the issue in the Subramaniam Balaji case and, in 2013, had directed it to frame guidelines in consultation with the political parties to explore the possibility of including the election manifestoes released by the parties to be included in the MCC. Following the court directive, the EC had issued fresh guidelines in 2015.
It had issued another set of guidelines in 2019, prohibiting release of manifestoes during the 48-hour prohibitory period of campaign.
Sources said at a meeting chaired by Chief Election Commissioner Rajiv Kumar and attended by Election Commissioner Anup Chandra Pandey, the view that emerged was that the poll watchdog cannot remain a mute spectator and overlook the undesirable impact of some of the promises on the conduct of free and fair elections and maintaining a level playing field for all political parties and candidates.
In its letter, the EC said the “consequences of inadequate disclosures by political parties get attenuated by the fact that elections are held frequently, providing opportunities for political parties to indulge in competitive electoral promises, particularly in multi-phase elections, without having to spell out their financial implications more particularly on committed expenditure.”
“These declarations are also not submitted by most of the political parties in time. While the Commission is agnostic to the nature of promises, the need to frame disclosure requirements to enable healthy debate on the financial implications of implementing those promises both in the immediate future and for the long-term fiscal sustainability, is imperative for facilitating the conduct of free and fair elections,” it said.
Arguing that it is vital that the guidelines issued in 2015 are followed by the political parties in letter and spirit, the Commission said it has “come to the conclusion that a prescribed format for disclosure by political parties on the promises made by them in their election manifestoes is necessary to bring standardisation in the nature of information and facilitating comparability.”
“It is the Commission’s considered view that with adequate disclosures on the financial implications of the promises made, the Indian electorate will be able to exercise informed electoral choices,” the letter stated.
Significantly, the EC said Chief Secretaries of States and Union Finance Secretary at the Centre will also be required to populate fiscal information based on the latest budget and revised estimates in the year of the general election.
“To make the disclosures more meaningful, the proforma provides for certain fiscal information being pre-filled by the respective state/Central government, as the case may be based on the latest BE/RE,” the letter stated.