Thursday, February 22, 2024

PIL in Supreme Court seeks directions to make election manifesto legally enforceable

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A petition has been filed in the Supreme Court, seeking direction to declare the election manifesto of a party as statutory and legally enforceable.

The writ petition, filed by Advocate and BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay under Article 32, contended that election manifesto was a vision document, a published declaration of the intentions, motives and views of a political party, which it claims to achieve, if it gets elected.

The petitioner requested the Supreme Court to analyse whether political parties were really concerned about governance or do they cynically participate in evisceration of democratic electoral political process, which was a moot point.

The petition further sought direction to the Ministry of Law and Justice to take appropriate steps to regulate the functioning of registered and recognised political parties and make them accountable for essential rational manifesto promises.

Till date, the Centre has not enacted any law that would regulate the functioning of political parties and their election manifesto. Even the Election Commission has not made any guidelines under Article 324, the plea added.

It pointed out that an election manifesto was a window for voters to see through a political party’s governance agenda to make an informed decision. Once a vote was cast on the basis of the transactional value the voter saw in the party, a legal contract arguably comes into existence, if the said party forms the ruling government.

Upadhyay cited the reference of Delhi government. The Arvind Kejriwal-led Delhi government has failed to appoint Delhi Lokayukta after the retirement of Justice Reva Khetrapal. This has led to hundreds of pending complaints in office related to corruption. Unfortunately, the AAP did not amend the Lokayukta Act in the spirit of Lokpal and Lokayukta Act 2013 and was still using outdated ineffective 1995 Act, despite being in power for three terms.

The plea said the AAP government was formed after the historic Anna Hazare movement, which followed the Lokpal Bill at the Centre, a Lokayukta in each state and a Citizen Charter in every department. The injury to citizens was extremely large because AAP promised Janlokpal Bill-Swaraj Bill in 2013, 2015 and 2020 election manifestos, but did nothing to effectuate them.

The fulcrum of democracy is the fair electoral process, it added.

The petition said, “If the integrity of an electoral process is compromised, then the notion of representation becomes vacuous. Political parties are promising irrational freebies, but not fulfilling essential promises. So, the danger to democracy and Indian republic cannot be gainsaid. Rather than taking effective steps to secure the social, economic and political justice, the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, worship, equality of status opportunity and promote the fraternity, assuring dignity of individual and unity-national integration; the political parties are only distributing freebies.”

It should be made mandatory for the political parties to mention the respective Article of the Constitution while promising to enact new Law in their election manifesto and the timeline and deadline of completing their promises, added the petition.

Upadhyay said it should also be a mandate for the political parties to mention the steps to control corruption, crime, casteism, communalism, linguism, radicalism and fundamentalism. Besides, the parties should mention the essential steps to secure important fundamental rights, including the Right to health, education, shelter, road access, water, food, dignity, employment, justice, legal aid, and right to clean environment, in their election manifesto.

The plea stated that every political party promises to improve the standard of living of people by providing a corruption-free, transparent governance and good quality infrastructure, especially providing basic amenities like water, transportation and health, which are expected in every democracy. However, they do nothing and focus on freebies.

It said rather than considering fundamental rights-directive principles in election manifesto, political parties are promising freebies from public fund to lure voters, which is a wrongful gain. With limited financial resources, promising freebies is not only immoral, unethical and contrary to concept of a welfare state, but also arbitrary, irrational and violate Articles 14, 162, 266(3) and 282 of the Constitution.

“Political parties are prioritising their self-interest over national interest and public fund, which must be properly utilised to secure fundamental rights, is being used to lure voters. Court in S. Subramaniam Balaji [(2013) 9 SCC 659] had said that “the reality cannot be ruled out that the distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly influences all the people”. It shakes the roots of free and fair election to a large degree. The Commission also conveyed the same feeling both in the affidavit and in the argument,” it added.

Citing the example of Congress, the plea said the Congress has made a cause with agitating farmers that it will repeal three contentious farm laws when it comes to power, so, hypothetically, say Congress subsequently comes to power. Given that the said farms laws are a fundamental issue with the farming community, if the petitioner challenges those laws seeking legal enforcement of the party’s promise, before a Court of law, what could be the legal glitch in that?

Uniform Civil Code is one such promise that BJP has been repeatedly making in its manifesto. In such a situation, what would be the legal hassle if someone takes the BJP to court seeking fulfillment of the promise? Let it, at least, introduce a UCC Bill and leave it to the machinations of parliamentary democracy, to be settled in due course, it added.

Upadhyay said in countries like Bhutan and Mexico, political parties are required to submit a copy of their manifesto to the Election Commission before the primary round of National Assembly elections and the manifestos are published only with the approval of the Commission, after thoroughly vetting and filtering out issues with potential to undermine security and stability of the nation.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom and Netherlands, legal provisions are applicable and offensive campaign materials are screened and taken out, he added.

The plea asked whether this principle can be applied in India? It said the manifesto of a political party should be screened by the EC before it is released. After screening, if the Commission finds any objectionable or misleading campaign material, it can ask the political party to modify it. Besides, the messages, which evoke a certain feeling, need to be screened and consequently removed.

In India, most manifestos do not contain the manner in which policy would be implemented/source of funds for implementation. On the contrary, neither it mentions about how the public exchequer would fund the scheme, nor how an individual would qualify for receiving money under a particular scheme.

“Political parties do not realise the value of manifestos and they prepare it in at a very short notice without deep thinking. Most of the political parties are more interested in preserving their vote bank, rather than improving the quality of governance and administration. There is a need to improve the manifesto from the point of view of political stability, social equality and economic growth,” noted the petitioner.

He said election manifestos of political parties must only talk about public good and not appeal to any section of voters by promising freebies like cycle, grinding machines and television.

The petition sought directions from the Supreme Court for the Election Commission to use its plenary constitutional power for framing of guidelines to regulate the functioning of registered and recognised political parties and make them accountable for essential and rational manifesto promises.

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