The Supreme Court on Wednesday (August 24) said there must be a “debate” on the “serious” issue relating to the practice of political parties promising freebies and asked why the Centre cannot call for an all-party meeting on it.
The apex court said until and unless there is a unanimous decision among political parties that freebies are going to destroy the economy and have to be stopped, nothing can happen as it is only political parties that would make such promises and contest elections and not individuals.
“Why does the Government of India not call for an all-party meeting?” the top court said. “There must be a debate. The issue is serious, there is no doubt about it. The question is, why does the Government of India not call for a meeting,” it observed.
The observations by a bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices Hima Kohli and C T Ravikumar came while it was deliberating on a plea opposing promises of such handouts by the parties during polls.
At the outset, senior advocate Vikas Singh appearing for petitioner Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, suggested that a retired judge of the apex court like former CJI R M Lodha should be the chairman of the committee proposed to be constituted on this aspect.
Also Read: Freebies have costs, parties must make it clear to voters: RBI’s Ashima Goyal
However, Justice Ramana observed, “a person who retires or who is going to retire has no value in this country. That is the problem.”
Singh said ultimately, it is the personality and the position that one has held which makes the difference.
Advocate Prashant Bhushan said that he has filed an intervention on behalf of the NGO Centre for Public Interest Litigation. Bhushan argued that they have said three kinds of freebies must be prohibited, those which are discriminatory or which violate fundamental rights, those which are against public policy, and those which are rolled out immediately before the election, like in the last six months before the polls, by the ruling party.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said there are political parties which may not be in power in the state or the Centre and are rolling out such promises. “The focal point is would the voter have an atmosphere where he can take an informed decision. It is not a question of ruling or losing a party. Can you promise the moon to get elected?” Mehta said.
As the bench asked why the Government of India cannot call for an all-party meeting on the issue, Mehta said the political parties are already there before the apex court claiming that this is their right.
“There are some political parties who think it is their fundamental right to offer freebies and have come to power through offering these freebies,” the solicitor general argued.
Also Read: Welfare schemes uplift weaker sections, can’t be termed freebies: DMK to SC
The bench observed that the biggest problem is, who will head the committee. “Ultimately it is only political parties which will make promises and contest elections, not individuals. Suppose, if I contest, I may not even get ten votes,” the CJI said, adding that individuals do not have much importance in the present system and that is how our democracy is.
During the hearing, the 2013 judgement delivered by a two-judge bench of the apex court in the S Subramaniam Balaji vs The Government of Tamil Nadu and others was referred before the bench and it was argued that this verdict required reconsideration.
In the 2013 judgement, the court noted that after examining and considering the parameters laid in section 123 of the Representation of People Act, it arrived at a conclusion that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be read into section 123 for declaring it to be a corrupt practice.
The bench said that it would look into that judgement and would consider constituting a three-judge bench.
While hearing the matter on Tuesday, the apex court had observed that all political parties including the BJP were in favour of freebies and due to this, a judicial attempt has been made to deal with it. “On this issue, I can say all political parties are on one side including BJP. Everybody wants freebies. That is the reason we made an attempt,” the bench had observed.
Also Read: State govts shouldn’t give freebies beyond fiscal capabilities: Ex-NITI Aayog VC
Senior advocate Kapil Sibal whose assistance has been sought by the bench, had mooted the idea of setting up a panel of the statutory finance commission. He had said as per the Fiscal Management Responsibility Act, if some freebies are given, then the benefit cannot go beyond three per cent.
The top court is hearing a plea filed by Upadhyay which opposes the practice of political parties promising freebies during elections and seeks the Election Commission to invoke its powers to freeze their election symbols and cancel their registration.
(With inputs from agencies)