The Supreme Court on August 3 said the Parliament may not be able to effectively debate the issue of doing away with “irrational freebies” offered to voters during elections, saying the “reality” is that not a single political party wants to take away freebies.
The court suggested setting up a specialised body composed of persons who can “dispassionately” examine the problem.
The observations from a Bench led by Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana came even as the Centre said these freebies were paving the way to an “economic disaster” besides “distorting the informed decision of voters”. The Centre, represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, said it “substantially and in principle” supported doing away with the practice of promising freebies to voters.
Mr. Mehta said the court should allow the Election Commission of India (ECI) to “apply its mind” to the problem.
But senior advocate Kapil Sibal said the ECI should be “kept away” from the discussion on freebies. “ECI is MFI (Most Favoured Institution),” Mr. Sibal. He said the issue was political and economical in nature and did not just concern elections.
“The Parliament will have to debate,” Mr. Sibal said.
“Mr. Sibal, do you think there will be a debate in the Parliament? These days everyone wants freebies. Not a single political party will allow freebies to be taken away… We take the side of the ordinary people, the downtrodden. Their welfare has to be taken care of. We are not just looking at this as just another problem during election time… We are looking at the national economic well-being,” Chief Justice Ramana said.
The court said the government as well as organisations like Niti Aayog, Finance Commission of India, the Law Commission, Reserve Bank of India, Opposition, etc, have to be involved in the process of brainstorming on the problem of freebies and come up with constructive conclusions on the issue.
The court directed the parties to make “suggestions for the composition of a body”. It proposed that this body could examine ways to resolve the issue of freebies and file a report before the Centre or the ECI. The court said once the parties come up with suggestions on the composition of such a body in a week, it would pass orders.
Senior advocate Vikas Singh, for petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, said political parties and those in power in states riddled by debts should first come out in public about where they would source the money for paying for the largesse.
“It needs to be revealed from whose pockets these freebies are paid for,” Mr. Singh submitted.
“A poor person feels that what is put in his left pocket would be taken out of his right pocket in a few years,” Mr. Mehta joined in.
Chief Justice Ramana said ordinary citizens pay taxes on the belief that their money would be used for progress.
“State benefits should not just reach the rich. The poor are also entitled to benefits,” the CJI said.
Mr. Singh suggested that ECI could prepare a “model manifesto” to control freebies.
Chief Justice Ramana retorted that if the ECI had taken up the issue, the court would not have had to intervene now. The court said its judgments against violence during elections continue to be ignored.
The Bench said there was no point in “empty formalities” like model manifestos. Nor would there be any purpose in the court engaging in lengthy debates to frame guidelines on the issue of freebies. The solution has to be found among the stakeholders, including Opposition parties and even Chief Ministers. The proposed body may help.
“It cannot be that you (political parties) do whatever you want for four years and then a Model Code of Conduct is put in place days before the elections,” the court said, scheduling the case for next Thursday.
The petitioner, Mr. Upadhyay, had argued that the offer and distribution of “irrational freebies” amounted to bribery and unduly influencing voters. It vitiated free and fair elections in the country.
Mr. Upadhyay claimed that states in total have debts tallying to over ₹ 70 lakh crore.