Herald View: Policing poll promises, EC style

Even as the EC splurges on partnering with global tech giants like Google and Facebook to promote ‘voter awareness’, it cannot even ensure that all legitimate voters get to vote

Election Commission of India
Election Commission of India

Herald View

The dramatic volte-face by the Election Commission of India on the issue of ‘irrational freebies’ before elections defies both reason and common sense. Clearly unconvinced about the voters’ own judgment, previous Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana had decided to review the Court’s 2013 judgment validating pre-poll promises and blandishments such as colour TVs. The Election Commission now wants political parties to justify pre-poll promises ‘so that voters can make an informed choice’. On two earlier occasions this year, first in April and then August, the Commission declared it wouldn’t interfere with party manifestos because that would constitute ‘overreach’. Sensibly, the Commission had maintained that it had no legal standing to interfere with policies an elected government frames to fulfil pre-election promises to voters.

In an affidavit filed in August, the Commission reiterated its position and held that ‘freebies’ and ‘irrational’ were undefinable, subjective terms. Freebies like a bicycle or laptop could also impact different sections of voters differently and it was beyond the jurisdiction—and competence—of the Commission to assess a government’s fiscal priorities and policies. But an EC communication to political parties on 4 October proposes an amendment in its model code of conduct to make it mandatory for political parties to submit a declaration, in a preordained proforma, detailing how they propose to finance what they promise voters ahead of polls. Parties will be expected to explain whether new taxes will be levied or expenditure rationalised to fulfil promises.

The frothy recent debate on India’s ‘freebie culture’ started after Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently attacked the Opposition for making reckless promises ahead of elections—what he famously likened to distributing ‘revdi’ (literally: a sweet confection)—which, he said, was dangerous for the country and its development. Does that sound like the pot calling the kettle black? (Do read: It’s Raining ‘Revdi’ in Gujarat, page 1). What about the enormous sums of taxpayer rupees spent on endowments for temples, on building and publicising new ones, on erecting gigantic statues that cost thousands of crores, on ‘world class’ airports, on the Central Vista fantasy project? Who will decide whether these count as wasteful expenditure? Surely not the Election Commission.

The irony is that despite appointing an army of ‘expenditure observers’, the Election Commission has failed miserably in reducing the use of money power in elections. It has been a helpless onlooker, though it did register a token protest against the anonymous electoral bonds. The Supreme Court of India, which is so concerned about freebies, has not found the time to hear challenges to the electoral bond scheme for the past three years. The Election Commission has been equally helpless in not just curbing election-spend by political parties but implementing the existing code of conduct. It has practically abdicated its responsibility to ensure a level playing field, and has failed to stop the misuse of social media in elections. While several thousand crores of electoral bonds have been bought by anonymous donors, the Commission has written to the government to amend the Representation of People Act to reduce the amount of anonymous donations from Rs 20,000 to Rs 2,000.

Not all is well with the Election Commission, where the post of one of the Election Commissioners has been vacant since May and many of its decisions have been overturned by the top court. Even as it splurges on partnering with global tech giants like Google and Facebook to promote ‘voter awareness’ and engages film stars to convey the message of ‘free and fair elections’, it cannot even ensure that all legitimate voters get to vote. Its supposed autonomy has become a joke and it is increasingly being seen as an adjunct of the government in power.

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