Infringement of Rights of Political Parties
THE Election Commission of India wants political parties to provide detailed information about the financial implications of the promises made in their election manifestos as well as the effects of these promises on the fiscal sustainability of the state or central government’s finances. For this, the Election Commission proposes to amend the model code of conduct to include a two-part proforma to be filled up by political parties for disclosure of the promises made and the financial implications of these.
This is an extraordinary and bizarre proposal which has been mooted by the Election Commission. The reason given for this step is “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.”
Such an explanation does not wash. If a political party decides to offer free school uniforms to children going to government schools, the worthiness of such a promise is to be decided by the people who vote in the elections. What would be the financial cost and how the finances for the uniform scheme are to be allocated is for the newly-elected government to decide. Where does the Election Commission figure in the matter?
According to the commission, the second part of the proforma provides for some fiscal information being prefilled by the respective state/central government based on the latest budget estimate/revised estimate. The political party is to fill the right side of the proforma by showing how financing would be raised to fill the gap with reference to the latest budget estimate or revised estimate in the context of the increased finances required for fulfilling the election promises. Such an exercise would involve a complicated case of financial accounting which would only be possible by a team of financial experts who have the experience of official budget making.
Moreover, the commission’s desire to assess the “impact of the additional resource raising plan (for fulfilling promises) on fiscal sustainability of the state or the union government, as the case may be” is entering dangerous territory. The commission seems to accept the neo-liberal notions of fiscal conservatism and fiscal sustainability. As far as the CPI(M) is concerned, it has been opposed to the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, which fixes the fiscal deficit limit at 3 per cent of GDP. Will the Election Commission act as the arbiter on what fiscal sustainability is about?
The current move of the ECI to elicit details about the financial implications of election promises made by political parties and match it to the financial situation of the government concerned is surprising because only a few months before, in April this year, the Election Commission had in an affidavit to the Supreme Court said: “It is also stated that offering/distribution of any freebies either before or after the election is a policy decision of the party concerned. And whether such policies are financially viable or have adverse effect on the economic health of the state is a question that has to be considered and decided by the voters of the state”.
The Election Commission had also submitted that it cannot regulate state policies and decisions which may be taken by the winning party when they form the government. “Such an action, without enabling provisions in the law, would be an overreach of powers”.
Why this change of heart in the space of a few months? Has the Prime Minister Modi’s speech in July criticising the ‘revdi’ culture and blaming the opposition for it been a factor for the EC reconsidering its earlier stand? The whole debate stirred up on “freebies” was nothing but voicing the neo-liberal objections that subsidies for food, fertilizer and electricity and such like are all wasteful of public resources and are freebies. According to the prevailing neo-liberal wisdom, transfers to the working people must be substituted with transfers to the big capitalists to promote growth.
That is why when the Supreme Court took up the hearing of a petition by a BJP leader against “freebies” being promised by political parties during election time, the CPI(M) had stated that it was not for the Supreme Court to deliberate upon and decide whether election promises made by political parties are “freebies” or not. To paraphrase the Party’s position: This issue pertains purely to the realm of political. In a democracy, political parties are free to set out their platform and promises in the election manifesto. It is for the people to judge them, accept or reject them. It is the prerogative of a political party which wins the election to implement the promises it has made to the people with regard to welfare measures.
The bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India, N V Ramana, had heard the petition which wanted the reconsideration of the judgment given in the Subramaniam Balaji case by a two-member bench in 2013. On the last day of Justice Ramana’s tenure on August 26, the CJI directed that the case be heard by a three-member bench to be decided by the new CJI. So, the matter of election promises of “freebies” is still pending before the Supreme Court.
That makes the hurry for the ECI to insert new guidelines in the model code of conduct all the more intriguing. Is it targeted at the welfare schemes and direct cash transfers being made by various state governments? The prime minister considers all the central schemes as genuine welfare measures while similar welfare schemes undertaken by the opposition state governments are to be branded as “freebies”. The latest move of the Election Commission seems to subscribe to the prime minister’s views.
The ECI’s intervention on the financial implications of election promises made by political parties will be a serious infringement on the right of political parties to address people’s vital concerns and to respond to them in a democratic fashion. All political parties must be one in opposing this move of the Election Commission.
(October 5, 2022)