In their response to the Election Commission (EC) on the poll panel’s proposal to amend the Model Code of Conduct to guide political parties to disclose how they plan to finance promises made in election manifestos and assess the impact on fiscal sustainability, the Congress and most opposition parties, barring Akali Dal, have panned the move. They have called EC’s proposal on electoral freebies an overreach.
The BJP, on the other hand, has drawn a distinction between freebies and welfare measures, pointing out that parties should place emphasis on voter empowerment and capacity building rather than making people more dependent on government measures.
Pointing out that BJP’s response to EC was on the lines of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spelt out in public, a source familiar with the drafting of the response told The Indian Express, “You (have) heard the Prime Minister and his views on freebies. His views on macroeconomic stability are before us. He also talked about empowerment and sustainable growth. So it surmises our stand on freebies.”
Citing an instance, a party leader said, “Reaching electricity to a poor household where power has not reached in 75 years is giving infrastructure. But waiving their electricity usage charge or giving them free electricity is a freebie.”
In its reply to EC, the Congress said that freebies are “part of the dialectics of a vibrant democratic system”. They are, the party said, “relatable to the give-and-take thrust of politics (and) they depend on the wisdom, discernment and analysis of the electorate, which should never be taken to be less than acute”.
“It is really something which is to be decided, be it pre-election or post-election, be it by way of electoral punishment or electoral acceptance and reward, that the electorate decides the wisdom of such poll promises or campaign assurances and equally decides their breach and non-compliance. Neither the Election Commission, nor the Government, nor indeed even the Courts, have jurisdiction to…regulate such issues. It would therefore be best for the Commission to desist from doing so,” party leader Jairam Ramesh stated in the letter to the poll panel.
On jurisdiction, the party said “if ECI were to consider such a ban, it would necessarily need to pass Parliamentary muster first. Furthermore, even in Part VIII of the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, 2015, ECI puts forth general guidelines, which essentially call for making campaign promises in a responsible manner.”
Referring to its past complaints to EC, including ones against BJP on invoking the armed forces for campaign purposes and campaigning by the PM during prohibited hours, the Congress said, “These are the issues in our opinion the ECI should be focusing on, issues which ensure that the massively irregular tilt in favour of the ruling party is corrected; or it risks becoming an entity to police solely the opposition.”
It questioned the definition of freebies and asked how the amendment would be enforced. The EC’s proposed amendment to limit campaign promises to only those that are “possible to be fulfilled”, it said, was a “wooly formulation”.
“Every single party will claim that their promises are enforceable and given that the requirement proposed is to give a ‘broad formulation’ for how the promise will be achieved, the threshold isn’t a difficult one to clear. Which again brings us back to the concern that this is a redundant exercise,” it said.
Besides, it said, “even assuming that the ECI is available to ensure ‘standardization’ of poll promises in the format proposed, how does it ensure that these promises are met? Can it disqualify the party? Can it disqualify select candidates? Can it go to Court by way of a writ to demand enforcement?”
The Congress said in its response: “The system isn’t in need of a fix: In our opinion, this problem is a contrived one. The fact is that political parties need to be able to write their manifestos in a language that best expresses their ideologies. And it is disingenuous to say that you must ensure that you provide a detailed roadmap of how exactly the promise will be delivered…. Outlandish promises come with an expiry date and are ultimately exposed by themselves (there are several examples that come to mind between 2014 to now).”
Left parties CPI(M) and CPI, as well as DMK, also argued that the proposed amendment is an “overstretch of EC’s constitutional mandate.”
“The proposed amendment to the Model Code of Conduct and the proforma for disclosure of the details of poll promises and their financial implications will get the Commission involved in political and policy matters which do not fall under its purview,” the letter by CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said.
“The proforma enters into areas such as quantification of the financial implications of the promises made and the fiscal sustainability of the additional resource raising plan for fulfilling the promises. These are political and policy issues and there can be divergent views of what constitutes fiscal sustainability,” he said.
Arguing that the matter of election promises and the issue of ‘freebies’ are still pending before the Supreme Court, Yechury wrote that “in such a situation, the Commission’s initiative to amend the Model Code of Conduct by introducing a proforma, which infringes on the rights of political parties to address people’s concerns and offer them policy and welfare measures, is unwarranted.”
Sources in DMK said it had strongly opposed the move on the ground of “jurisdiction” as it was a “complete legislative function.”
DMK Rajya Sabha member P Wilson referred to the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution and said, “It is a welfare measure fulfilling the Directive Principles of State Policy. Even courts don’t have the power to go into this issue. The courts have clearly said that it can’t give a direction to enforce Directive Principles of State Policy, nor can it prohibit a state enforcing it.”
The Akali Dal has backed the move and said EC should elaborate the mechanism it is going to adopt to check the “veracity” of the figures given by parties. Some parties, SAD said in its reply to EC, “will try to mislead the electorate by quoting imaginary figures of raising additional resources”.
The party suggested that the EC announce one date for all parties to release their manifestos to check what it called the process of copying of promises and unnecessary competition between parties, resulting in making “illogical and exaggerated” announcements. “Even after formation of the government if a party fails to implement its major promises….then some concrete action must be taken before the next general election against that errant party,” a letter by Akali Dal senior vice president Daljit Singh Cheema noted.