In an effort to crack down on the political practise of announcing “freebies” to entice voters, the Election Commission of India mandated that political parties explain the financial implications of their promises and how they will be fulfilled. However, ECI’s proposal to ask parties to quantify poll promises, explain ab initio (from the start), and assess fiscal impact is being compared to the “IPO-isation” of a political manifesto.
GS Paper 2: Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability, e-governanceapplications, models, successes, limitations and potential; citizens charters, transparency & accountability and institutional and other measures.
What exactly are election manifestos? Explain the significance of election manifestos in Indian democracy and the challenges they pose. (250 Words)
- In 2015, the ECI issued guidelines through an amendment to the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) in response to the Supreme Court’s directions in the Subramaniam Balaji Case and Article 324 of the Constitution.
- Article 324 of the Constitution mandates the Election Commission to conduct elections to the Parliament and State Legislatures, among other things
- These amendments require political parties and candidates to follow through on promises made in their manifestos.
- The ECI has requested that political parties and candidates respond with their positions as soon as possible.
- If no response is received, ECI will assume that the parties or candidates have nothing to say about the proposed amendments to the MCC.
Concerning ECI notices/directives
- Reprimanding (criticising) parties: In a letter to political party officials, ECI chastised the parties for offering freebies without explaining how they would be fulfilled.
- Pro-forma: The proposed’standardised disclosure pro-forma’ for recognised National and State Political Parties includes sections that political parties must fill out in order to reflect the rationale for the promises and provide possible ways and means to fulfil them.
- The ECI also suggested that the parties disclose the impact on the fiscal sustainability of the State’s or Central Government’s finances, as the case may be.
- Roadmap: The ECI also asked political parties to explain how they planned to raise funds for the freebies promised in the manifesto.
- Unwanted consequences: The ECI also noted that the consequences of inadequate disclosures by political parties are attenuated (diminished) by the fact that elections are held frequently, giving political parties opportunities to engage in competitive electoral promises.
- This is especially noticeable in multi-phase elections, and most political parties do not submit declarations on time.
The Importance of the ECI Move
- Right to accurate information: According to ECI’s letter, eligible voters have the right to vote freely and with access to accurate information at all stages of the electoral process.
- Democratic right: According to ECI, the right to vote, the most precious gift of democracy, is inextricably linked to timely and reliable information.
- As a result, the timely availability of data points to assess the financial viability of election manifesto promises becomes critical.
- Unviable poll promises: This ECI action will assist in avoiding making undue poll promises that are likely to taint the integrity of the election process or exert undue influence on voters in exercising their franchise.
- Level playing field: The freebie culture in politics affects the level playing field for all political parties and candidates, as well as the conduct of free and fair elections.
ECI move criticism
- No standard definition: It is impossible to define freebies, and labelling any promise as a “irrational freebie” is fraught with controversy
- In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the ECI stated that the terms “irrational” and “freebie” are subjective and open to interpretation. A promise made by one political party may be considered a freebie by another, and vice versa.
- Vision document: It is a manifesto that includes more than a few financial promises and serves as a document with both subjective and objective elements in a democracy.
- Welfare politics: In today’s Indian scenario, where poverty is high, unemployment is widespread, and inequality is extreme, welfare politics will drive the political economy.
- For example, Oxfam’s 2022 annual report on Inequality in India revealed that the number of poor doubled to 134 million as the wealth of the country’s dollar billionaires doubled.
- The richest 1% have amassed 51.5 percent of total wealth, while the bottom 60% of the population has only 5%.
- No specified criterion: The election watchdog cannot specify parameters for promises that do not have a financial cost. Like reservations in community jobs.
- Overstepping boundaries: The Election Commission of India is constitutionally tasked with conducting free and fair elections, not with limiting political and economic imagination.
- Institutional overreach: Making such disclosures a part of the MCC may eventually place the onus of evaluating proformas submitted by political parties on the poll watchdog, which could be an example of ECI’s institutional overreach.
- Election contestation: Even if the promises are unrealistic or absurd, it is the responsibility of the opposing parties and the media to expose them.
- Voter mandate: It is ultimately up to the voter to assess the economic and fiscal implications of freebie policies, as well as to reward good performance and punish non-delivery by political parties.
- Policy domain: Because economic policy is in the hands of elected representatives, ECI has no role to intervene in the legislature’s purely political domain.
SBI issues a warning about freebies.
- About the report: In a recent report, Soumya Kanti Ghosh, the State Bank of India’s group chief economic advisor, warned against the growing trend of offering freebies during elections.
- Demonstration: Three poor states, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand, were cited as examples, with pension liabilities totaling three lakh crores.
- According to the report, these states’ pension liabilities were quite high, at 217, 190, and 207 percent, respectively.
- Raising loans: According to the report, state off-budget borrowing had reached 4.5% of GDP, and the extent of freebies or welfare schemes had reached a significant portion of GDP in many states.
- Freebie expenditure: According to the report, cash transfers, utility subsidies, loan or fee waivers, and interest-free loans announced by states in their latest budgets range from 1% to 2.7% of GSDP in several states.
- For example, in the case of Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, both of which are heavily in debt, freebies have exceeded 2% of GSDP.