The guidelines inserted by the Election Commission in the Model Code of Conduct to be kept in mind by political parties while drafting their poll manifestos is an exercise in overzealousness. In recent times, the promises made by some political parties have graduated beyond basic necessities like food, jobs and shelter to expensive gadgets like grinders, television sets and now laptops. The Supreme Court judgment in July that forced this exercise upon the EC did not hold the doling out of such freebies offered by political parties as corrupt practices or electoral offences under the Representation of People’s Act. Instead, the apex court held that freebies to eligible persons were directly related to the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSE). The court also held that what were once luxuries had become necessities and the concept of livelihood could not be confined to bare physical survival. In the same judgment, however, the court delivered a googly stating that such promises influence voters and “shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”.
As expected, political parties slammed the court directive to the EC to frame guidelines on manifestos. Most parties were unanimous that this was intrusion into their prerogative to frame ideology, policies, programmes and promises. Sensitive to any form of overreach by other institutions, it is interesting to note how quickly the politicians have piped down and allowed the EC to frame the guidelines. The answer to the change of stance lies within the inconclusive three-point guidelines the EC has framed. One guideline mandates that the manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals enshrined in the Constitution. Another concedes that welfare measures aligned to the DPSE are unobjectionable but frowns upon those promises “likely” to vitiate the purity of the poll process and unduly influencing voters. A third guideline requires manifestos to broadly indicate the rationale of the promises and the ways and means to finance them. The guidelines end with a transcendental line: “Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.” Such reasoning characterises our voters as gullible individuals without the intelligence to discern irrational populism.
It remains to be seen whether parties will accommodate the spirit of these guidelines in the manifestos. The trouble with these guidelines is that they are suitably vague and amenable to subjective interpretation. It is not difficult to provide rationale or the financial means for most freebies. For example, a grinder-mixer is a boon to countless poor women who slave in kitchens, in terms of time and effort. The earnings on account of the woman’s productivity to the household and to the nation could also be quantified to offset the burden on the exchequer. Similarly, a laptop or cycle to girl students or a TV set to BPL families can have rationale like knowledge creation. Unlike the model code of conduct that effectively bans ruling parties from abusing positions of power by implementing schemes on election-eve, placing curbs in manifestos appears unreasonable. Bona fide and imaginative promises made through manifestos that stump rivals and arouse their envy could also come up for needless legal challenge now. Instead of hair-splitting over such intangibles, the Election Commission should monitor the funding sources of politicians and political parties. The black economy spurred by elections dictates future policies; in contrast the promise of freebies appears benign.