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The Election Commission of India (ECI) has chosen to cross a line by backtracking on its earlier position that it did not have the power to regulate the content of campaign promises on “freebies”, also described as revdi by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The ECI has now issued a note to political parties demanding full and detailed disclosure on how these ‘freebies’ would be financed. In doing so, it has usurped the role of the Opposition in a parliamentary, elected, democratic system; which is to challenge the government.
Its encroachment is also a violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) that states, “Criticism of other political parties, when made, shall be confined to their policies and programme, past record and work.” Inquiring into freebies, how they are paid for and the impact on state or Union finances are what “other political parties” are meant to do. As a set of dos and don’ts, the Code is explicit on the ECI’s responsibilities.
As envisaged by the makers of the constitution, the ECI’s authority to keep the process of elections free and fair did not need a list of specific dos and don’ts. The context was a perception that ruling parties exercised undue influence and there were allegations of abuse of power. The Code of Conduct, drawn up in 1960, has been amended time and again since then.
By issuing a note instead of amending the rules, the ECI is, it appears, responding to allegations by one political party – or rather, its supreme leader, Narendra Modi – that freebies are “very dangerous” for the country, for development and for well-being.
Anxiety or fear of freebies is a spectre that seems to be haunting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It was raised by external affairs minister S. Jaishankar at a meeting with parliamentarians during the Sri Lanka crisis, where he warned that freebies could result in a constitutional crisis; it has been raised by finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who said that state spending on freebies could jeopardise financial stability not only of the state, but of the country as a whole.
Freebies or job promises or cash transfers promised during election campaigns are part of how political parties present themselves to voters during the election process. Ahead of 2014, Modi promised one crore jobs and Rs 15 lakh cash to every Indian. He did not come through on the promise, but the voter continued to believe in him by re-electing him in 2019.
By stepping into this controversy, the ECI is open to suspicion; is it bound by the constitution to function as an independent institution or has it become a tool for the ruling regime?
The Code of Conduct that comes into effect as soon as election dates are announced for state assembly or Lok Sabha elections is just that; a code, not a law. The ECI cannot enforce nor punish violations of the Code except in very limited ways, like gagging a leader from delivering speeches for a short period of time or restricting a person from entering or leaving a particular constituency.
It is not the job of the ECI to check what ruling parties do when they are installed in office. By demanding disclosure on how the funding for freebies – which is really a policy decision of the ruling regime – will be done, or on how the policy will impact financial sustainability, the institution has abrogated to itself the power to monitor the functioning of the elected legislature and the government. By no stretch of the imagination is the ECI a supervisor of what governments do.
The ECI’s job is done once the votes are counted and the results declared. It does not have the power to venture into the realm of either the executive, that is the government which makes policies; or the legislature that approves the money for the policies; or indeed the judiciary which decides on the legality of the policy.
For argument’s sake, if the ECI were given the details it has demanded on how freebies/revdis would be financed and the impact of doing so on financial sustainability, what would it do with the information? How would it disclose this information to ensure free and fair elections? How can it take a call on what is financially sustainable, when different schools of economic theory vehemently disagree on this?
Allegations and complaints about the failure of the ECI to do its job are legion. Every political party, be it in power or out of power, or a party that has never been in power, complains about the Election Commission’s work.
Freebies are a political gambit. The announcement of free gas cylinders before the Uttar Pradesh elections can be classified as one of those freebies/revdis by some but is defended by the regime as a response to the cost of living crisis. The extension of the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana of free food grains to the poor by three months starting October this year can be denounced as a freebie or described as a bit of help to ease the cost of living crisis. A smartphone for students during the pandemic, when schools were shut and classes went online, can be a freebie or it can be seen as essential to fulfil the role of the state in delivering the right to education.
Neither economists nor policy makers – and certainly not political parties – can agree on whether subsidising the cost of consumption of electricity to the urban population or the farm sector is a freebie or if it is a remedy to the cost of living crisis, the rising indebtedness of the farm sector, or the unsustainable cost of farming. Free bus passes and discounted train tickets are also freebies for some and necessary government action for others. Whether a government should or shouldn’t pay women pocket money via a scheme like Lakshmi Bhandar, rolled out by Mamata Banerjee in 2021 in fulfilment of her election promise, is just as debatable. So are the various packages announced by state governments for pregnant and lactating mothers, girl children and the disabled.
In short, there is no one strong opinion on this and the ECI has neither the qualifications nor the right to pronounce judgement.
How governments spend is certainly open to public scrutiny and criticism. If spending details are fully and honestly shared then the scrutiny is more effective. If data is fudged or suppressed, an allegation that all opposition parties make against every ruling regime, the scrutiny process is skewed.
On its part, the ECI would be better off dealing with the almost permanent complaints against its various shortcomings on voters list deletions and additions, monitoring “any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic” and prevent ”scrupulously all activities which are ‘corrupt practices’ and offences under the election law, such as bribing of voters, intimidation of voters, impersonation of voters…”
The ECI knows, as does everyone in India, that political parties do not stick to the limits prescribed under the law on spending money on elections. The biggest parties are the worst offenders given the style and expense of their campaigning. The institution’s failure to tackle the issue is an open admission of how limited its clout is to do its job. By enabling the loopholes on election spending by candidates to become bigger and bigger through creative interpretations that upend the intention of the restrictions, the ECI has proved that it can be blind to an astonishing degree.
With so much that the ECI ought to do to ensure free and fair elections, its decision to check on how ruling parties will govern is an attack on the structure that separates the role and responsibilities of the executive, legislature and judiciary. It is an assault on the rights of voters to make sense of the various bits of information or revdis/freebies that political parties offer to lure them. Voters chose their representatives and their choice is based on their aspirations and expectations.
Voters decide the party that they want in power and also decide how much power a ruling regime will enjoy. Voters can deliver split verdicts; they can deliver overwhelming majorities; they can decimate a party by withdrawing support. The Congress and the Communist Party of India Marxist in West Bengal have been ruling parties; today, neither party has a single MLA in the state assembly.
It is this power to decide that belongs to the voter that the Election Commission is slyly trying to usurp, encouraged by a Supreme Court that also has opinions on the financial viability of freebies.