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#India- Supreme Court says free lunches destroy appetite for elections

Apex Court , asks Election comission to frame guidelines on poll manifestos

 Samanwaya Rautray, ET Bureau | 6 Jul, 2013,

 

The court directed the Election Commission to consult political parties and incorporate new clauses into its existing non-binding model code of conduct .
The court directed the Election Commission to consult political parties and incorporate new clauses into its existing non-binding model code of conduct .
NEW DELHI: Freebies and other benefits routinely promised by political parties to woo voters destroy the level playing field in a democracy, the Supreme Court has said, but its ruling stops short of labelling the practice as corrupt, prompting critics to complain that it contained neither bark nor bite.

The court directed the Election Commission to consult political parties and incorporate new clauses into its existing non-binding model code of conduct to bring election manifestos of political parties under its ambit.

A Supreme Court bench comprising Chief Justice designate P Sathasivam and Justice Ranjan Gogoi said on Friday the law as it stands only covers enticements or allurements by individual candidates and not political parties, and refused to declare promises made in manifestos as corrupt.

“It will 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 bench said as it refused to rule such practice as corrupt under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act.

“It is the promise of a future government. It is not a promise of an individual candidate. (Section 123) contemplates corrupt practice by individual candidate or his agent.”

But in the same breath, the court said it was a fact that the distribution of freebies influenced voters. “It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree,” it said.

Legal and political experts reacted with dismay to the ruling, but acknowledged that the court could not have made a law dealing with the growing menace of promises of freebies.

Freebies have ranged from TV sets to bicycles to mixer-grinders to plain cash. “Sending a state budget into disarray is an illegality… But the ruling has reduced it to a mere immorality. After all, these freebies all come from the state exchequer,” said senior lawyer KV Vishwanath. He said the model code of conduct only had a salutary effect and was non-binding in nature.

Senior lawyer Dushyant Dave said the ruling interpreted the law in an extremely narrow manner. “It allows political parties to indulge on behalf of candidates in further such corrupt practices and vitiate the entire election process as in the past.

If they can give TV sets, why not liquor bottles?” The Supreme Court, which was hearing a petition challenging freebies offered by Tamil Nadu political parties DMK and AIADMK, said it had limitations in issuing directions to legislatures to pass laws on such an issue.

It admitted that the Election Commission, whose mandate was to hold free and fair elections, also could not police the practice of freebies effectively because there was no law directly governing the contents of poll manifestos.

The bench directed the Election Commissionto frame guidelines on the subject in consultation with political parties, much like it had done in the past on candidates, meetings, processions and polling days. “A separate head for guidelines for election manifesto released by a political party can also be included in the model code of conduct for the guidance of political parties and candidates,” the court said, as it underscored the need for a separate legislation for governing political parties.

“There’s a law to deal with societies, charitable trusts and even companies, but not a single one on political parties,” said Subhash Kashyap, a former secretary general of Lok Sabha. Political parties said they would study the court’s order. “In as much as the order aims at cleansing the system and reforming the electoral process, we welcome it.

We would like to engage with the Election Commission in the process of arriving at suitable rules in the model code of conduct,” said BJP spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman. The Supreme Court’s observations came in a case challenging election manifestos of the DMK in 2006 and 2011. In 2006, the party promised free distribution of colour TV sets to every household that did not own one, if elected to power.

It justified this saying the TVs would provide recreation and general knowledge to women, especially those living in rural areas. In 2011 again, ahead of state assembly elections, the DMK announced a manifesto with more free gifts.

This was more than matched by its opponent, the AIADMK, which promised to distribute free grinders, mixies, electric fans, laptop computers, gold chains,Rs 50,000 cash for women’s marriage, green houses, 20 kg rice to all ration card holders, and free cattle and sheep, if it were elected to power. “People have free TVs and grinders, but no power.

Tamil Nadu has 16-hour power cuts. This is what it does to your budget,” said senior lawyer CS Vaidyanathan

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