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EC doesn't have jurisdiction to regulate issues like freebies: Congress

The poll panel recently proposed amending the model code to ask political parties to provide authentic information to voters on the financial viability of their poll promises

Congress leader Jairam Ramesh (IANS/File photo)
Congress leader Jairam Ramesh (IANS/File photo)


The Congress on Friday said the Election Commission does not have the jurisdiction to regulate issues such as freebies, and urged the panel to focus on ensuring free and fair polls through proper implementation of Election Laws.

The poll panel on October 4 had proposed amending the model code to ask political parties to provide authentic information to voters on the financial viability of their poll promises, a move that came amid the freebies versus welfare measures debate that had triggered a political slugfest.

Such issues are part of the dialectics of a vibrant democratic system and depend on wisdom, discernment and analysis of the electorate which should never be taken to be less than acute, the Opposition party said.

"It is really something which is to be decided, be it pre-election or post-election, be it by way of electoral punishment or electoral acceptance and reward that the electorate decides the wisdom of such poll promises or campaign assurances and equally decides their breach and non-compliance," Congress general secretary communications Jairam Ramesh wrote to the Election Commission (EC).

"Neither the Election Commission, nor the government, nor indeed even the courts, have jurisdiction to justiciate and regulate such issues. It would therefore be best for the commission to desist from doing so," he said.

The EC had also said that empty poll promises have far-reaching ramifications, adding it cannot overlook the undesirable impact inadequate disclosures on election promises have on financial sustainability.

In a letter to all recognised national and state parties, the EC had asked them to submit their views on the proposals by October 19.

Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate told a press conference that the matter first came up when Prime Minister Narendra Modi on July 16 raised the issue of "revris" (freebies), after which the EC took up the issue and wrote to parties seeking their response.

She said the debate on the issue of "revris" in a democracy is distorted as it is the duty of any government to take care of the poor and oppressed classes, and evolve schemes for their upliftment.

The EC must focus on more crucial issues to strengthen democracy and leave the freebie debate to the wisdom of the people as helping the poor is not a freebie, Shrinate said.

"There are existing laws that are not enforced and we have reminded the commission, why fix what are not problems. This is not an issue that needs to be fixed because this isn't a problem. What is the problem is the kind of hate speeches...," she said.

Shrinate said there are things that the EC really needs to focus on for its own credibility and for enforcing the faith that people have in the commission as far as free and fair elections are concerned.

The Congress in its response to the EC proposal has said that "the issue does not fall under the poll body's jurisdiction" and asked "how can the Election Commission decide on the definition of freebies".

"It should first implement the existing poll laws properly and there are more burning issues that need to be taken care," she said.

Ramesh in the party's response to the EC has noted that the commission has in the past demonstrated great wisdom and restraint in exercise of this power, choosing to circumscribe and limit campaign actions which tilt the field in favour of one party over the other.

In fact, the specific bans on communal rhetoric, hate speech, undue influence, among others, all flow from these statutes, he noted.

"Thus, if the ECI were to consider such a ban it would necessarily need to pass parliamentary muster first. Furthermore, even in Part VIII of the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates, 2015, the ECI puts forth general guidelines which essentially call for making campaign promises in a responsible manner," he said.

Ramesh also insisted that the Congress be given an appropriate slot any time in the future so as to elaborate on these and other grounds before the commission.

He also said in the Congress' opinion, the EC in the past has demonstrated great wisdom and restraint in the exercise of this power choosing to circumscribe and limit campaign actions which tilt the field in favour of one party over the other. However, such power has always been exercised and guided by the statutory context, Ramesh said.

The Congress leader pointed out it is a "woolly formulation" that the commission has sought by way of the proposed amendment to limit campaign promises to only those that are "possible to be fulfilled".

"Every single party will claim that their promises are enforceable and given that the requirement proposed is to give a 'broad formulation' for how the promise will be achieved the threshold isn't a difficult one to clear. Which again brings us back to the concern that this is a redundant exercise," he said.

Even assuming that the EC is available to ensure "standardisation" of poll promises in the format proposed, how does it ensure that these promises are met, Ramesh asked, adding that can it disqualify the party or can it disqualify select candidates or can it go to court by way of a writ to demand enforcement.

"Can the commission demand resources be allocated to 'Promise A' when, say a health crisis such as Covid demands that resources be diverted to other more pressing purposes. This is why the entire act is futile," he said.

"In our opinion, this problem is a contrived one. The fact is that political parties need to be able to write their manifestos is a language that best expresses their ideologies. And it is disingenuous to say that you must ensure that you provide a detailed roadmap of how exactly the promise will be delivered," Ramesh said.

Outlandish promises come with an expiry date and are ultimately exposed by themselves, he said, noting that there are several examples that come to mind between 2014 to now.

He also said the process is cumbersome, unworkable and fails to take into account the time bound nature of a campaign, noting there are several facets the Congress intends to present to the EC.

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