Promise and Premise

The Election Commission of India recently wrote to political parties to provide authentic information to voters about the financial viability of election promises and sought their views on the issue. The Commission said that it cannot ignore the undesirable effect of not giving full information on election promises and their financial stability, as hollow election promises will have far-reaching effects.

According to the letter, holding of periodic elections in a free, fair and transparent manner is integral to any democracy. There are several dimensions to the concept of free, fair and transparent elections. These include that all eligible voters are able to exercise their votes with ease and without fear or allurement. One of the basic requirements is to enable them to exercise their franchise in an informed manner. Therefore, the electoral process has to facilitate the systematic flow of authentic and adequate information to voters at each electoral stage. The choice to cast the vote, the most precious gift of democracy, is directly and intricately linked to access to timely and reliable information. It is in this background that the timely availability of data points to assess the financial viability of the promises made to voters in election manifestos assumes criticality.

While the existing guidelines under the model code of conduct require political parties and candidates to explain the rationale for promises made as well as the possible ways and means to finance such promises, the Commission found that the declarations are quite routine, ambiguous and do not provide adequate information to voters to exercise informed choice in an election. The Commission noted that the consequences of inadequate disclosures made by political parties get attenuated by the fact that elections are held frequently, providing opportunities for political parties to indulge in competitive electoral promises, particularly in multi-phase elections, without having to spell out their financial implications more particularly on committed expenditure. These declarations are also not submitted by most political parties in time.

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. The Commission has come to the conclusion that a prescribed format for disclosure by political parties on the promises made by them in their election manifestos is necessary to bring standardization in the nature of information and facilitate comparability.
It is the Commission’s considered view that with adequate disclosures on the financial implications of the promises made, the Indian electorate will be able to exercise informed electoral choices. Although implementation of election promises could have several ramifications, the Commission proposes to confine the disclosures to only the financial implications of the promises in terms of the financial resources required and the ways of financing them and the effect thereof on the fiscal sustainability of the state’s or the central government’s finances, as the case may be. In designing the format, the Commission has chosen to strike a proper balance between technicalities and simplicity. Given that the major objective of the disclosures is to facilitate informed choices, greater importance has been given to simplicity.

For the purpose of meaningful observance of the model code of conduct by all national and recognized political parties and their candidates, the Commission proposes to supplement the existing model code of conduct guidelines and mandate political parties to inform voters at large about financial ramifications of their promises in manifestos against well-defined quantifiable parameters aimed at assessing feasibility of implementation of such promises within the financial space available in the state/Union in the enclosed proforma which shall capture the following:
Extent and expense of coverage (ex. individual, family, community, BPL or all population, etc);
Quantification of physical coverage as in above;
Quantification of financial implications of the promise(s) made;
Availability of financial resources;
Ways and means of raising resources for meeting the additional expenditure to be incurred in fulfilling the promises which could include:
(a) increase in tax and non-tax revenues,
(b) rationalization of expenditure,
(c) additional borrowings and,
(d) any other sources to be specified.

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.
Therefore, for the facilitation of political parties and to eliminate any ambiguity, the Commission proposes to prescribe a proforma for recognized national and state political parties for furnishing of details of financial implications of promises made in the election manifesto and the ways and means to finance them. In view of the foregoing, the Commission intends to make its extant directions operational by providing proforma to sub-para 3(iii) of Part VIII (Guidelines on Election Mani­festo) of the Model Code of Conduct as under:
“In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifesto also reflect the rationale for the promises and broad­ly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirement for it, in the proforma prescribed by the Election Commission for the purpose. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled."

The Commission asked all the parties to send their views by October 19. “If no response is received by then it will be presumed that your party has nothing specific to say on the proposed amendment in the MCC,” reads the letter signed by Senior Principal Secretary Narendra N Butolia.
It is pertinent to note that the following guidelines were issued and incorporated as Part VIII of the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, 2015, after the Supreme Court Subramaniam case directed the Commission to frame guidelines for the same in 2013.

“The Constitution under Article 324 mandates the Election Commission, to conduct elections inter alia to the Parliament and the State Legislatures. Having due regard to the above directions of the Supreme Court and after consultation with the Political Parties, the Commission, in the interest of free and fair elections, hereby directs that Political Parties and Candidates while releasing election manifestos for any election to the Parliament or State Legislatures, shall adhere to the following guidelines:
The election manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution and further that it shall be consistent with the letter and spirit of other provisions of Model Code of Conduct.

The Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoin upon the State to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and therefore there can be no objection to the promise of such welfare measures in election manifestos. However, political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise.
In the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.”

Further, in 2019 after obtaining the views of recognised political parties, the Commission added following to the Part VIII of the Model Code of Conduct:
“Prohibitory period of Release of Manifesto during elections(s)
(i) In case of single-phase election, manifestos shall not be released during the prohibitory period, as prescribed under Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951.
(ii) In case of multi-phase elections, manifestos shall not be released during the prohibitory periods, as prescribed under Section 126 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, of all the phases of those elections.”

The Supreme Court on August 11 this year, refused to de-register political parties promising freebies before elections, stating that entertaining such a request will go against the principles of democracy. A bench comprising then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Justice Krishna Murari, while rejecting the plea, observed that it cannot enter the area of de-registering a political party, as it was an undemocratic arena. A PIL was filed by BJP leader Ashwini Kumar Upadh­yay seeking directions to the central government and the Election Commission for taking steps to ensure regulation of poll manifestos of political parties and make all the parties accountable for promises made in such manifestos. In simple words, the plea opposed the system of political parties giving freebies to voters. Many political parties and leaders have opposed the plea till date.

Putting their views forward the Aam Aadmi Party named this PIL “political interest litigation”. Dr Jaya Thakur of the Congress submitted that it is the duty of the government to uplift the weaker sections of the society while framing schemes, and providing subsidies for the same is the duty of ruling parties that run the government. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party representative on television debates said that the Supreme Court should not be hearing the freebies matter which was taken very unfavourably by the top court. During the debate on TV, Tamil Nadu Finance Minister Palanivel Thiagarajan said that there was no Constitutional basis for courts to enter into the domain of economic policy.

-By Shivam Sharma and India Legal Bureau