Poll freebies as “corrupt practices”

It's time EC took note of manifestos

prasanna

Prasanna Mohanty | March 28, 2011



It is raining freebies in Tamil Nadu. Both the main political parties, the DMK and the AIADMK, have promised free laptops, mixies, grinders etc in their manifestos. Such promises may gladden the heart of voters of Tamil Nadu, but the key questions to ponder are: one, don’t these constitute electoral malpractices, and two, can these be described as serving “public purpose” to justify spending public funds?

The DMK promises free mixies and grinders to all women, laptops to all SC/ST students, free 35 kg of rice every month to BPL families, rice at one rupee a kg to all and so on. In the last elections, it had promised free colour TV sets to all and claims to have fulfilled that. Sceptics say this and other such freebies, including cash gifts, clinched the election in its favour then. In fact, union home minister P Chidambaram had then described DMK’s election manifesto as the real hero of the 2006 elections.

The AIADMK didn’t bother to match DMK in 2006 in terms of poll promises and may have paid the price. This time, Jayalalithaa is taking no chances. Her manifesto promises, among other things: free laptops to all senior school and college students; wet mixies (to prepare dosa batter), grinders plus electric fans; free 20 kg rice to all ration card holders (PDS is universal in the state) every month, free water and half a sovereign of gold for ‘mangalsutra’ to poor women getting married. She even described her manifesto as “growth oriented”.

The obvious question then is: Does freebies announced in election manifestos amount to bribing the voters and hence, an electoral malpractice?

The electoral laws are silent on this. KJ Rao, former advisor to the ECI, says manifestos  go “unscrutinised” because there are no guidelines relating to the manifestos. Presently, a PIL is pending with the apex court challenging the DMK’s free distribution of colour TVs.

The closest that any electoral law may refers to is clause 4 of the Model Code of Conduct issued in 2007, which says: “All parties and candidates shall avoid scrupulously all activities which are “corrupt practices” and offences under the election law, such as bribing of voters...”

The Representation of the People Act defines “corrupt practices” to include (for the present purpose) “bribery” (gift, offer or promises to contest election and not, to vote or not), “gratification” (to contest election or not and to vote or not) and “undue influence” in free exercise of electoral rights.

These are not specific to the manifesto. This why Rao says one would need the court’s guidance. The PIL before the apex court may then provide the answer.

The second question that arises is: Can public money be used (as manifestos promise and DMK did after the 2006 elections) for purposes other than “public purpose”?

While free education, free drinking water and free ration to BPL families may be construed as “public purpose” given the level of illiteracy, hunger and lack of access to potable water in the country, to say the same about “gift” of colour TV sets, laptops, mixies and grinders is to stretch the definition of “public purpose” or “public interest”.

Even to a lay man it is apparent that TV sets, laptops and other such freebies are “luxuries” that serve no “public purpose” or “public interest”.

Public interest would be served by promising to provide basic facilities like food, education, drinking water, healthcare, electricity, shelter etc “to all”. Some of these facilities may be given to the poor and the disadvantaged “free” as a “positive incentive” or “affirmative action” to improve their lot.

It is time for our courts of law and the ECI to take cognizance of this malaise that characterize election manifestos.

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