Politics of freebies: All stakeholders have to be involved in brainstorming, says SC

With the Centre favouring an end to freebies by political parties using public money to lure voters, the Supreme Court Wednesday asked petitioners and respondents of a plea seeking directions against freebies to give suggestions on the composition of a committee which will study the issue and make necessary recommendations.

“After hearing the counsel, the considered opinion of the court is that…all the stakeholders – the beneficiaries and the people who are opposing freebies and in addition to that, the government as well as organisations like Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, RBI and opposition parties…have to be involved in the process of making some brainstorming and come to some conclusions on these issues. So, we direct all the parties to make their suggestions about the composition of such a body and make recommendations,” a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice of India N V Ramana said in its order.

It asked the two sides to submit their suggestions in one week’s time.

Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench that such “populist announcements…distort the informed decision making of the voter. They don’t know what’s going to fall on them. This is the way we are heading towards economic disaster”.

At the outset, the CJI said it is not only the rich who should get benefits but the poor too and said the question is to what extent it can be checked.

Senior Advocate Vikas Singh appearing for petitioner Advocate Ashwini Upadhyay responded that “from whose pocket it will come to go to whose pocket” will have to be considered so that the voter will know.

“(Given to) My left pocket and after a few years, taken from my right pocket. That’s the long and short…I’m a poor person. I’m the beneficiary. I would be happy that I’m getting something in my left pocket, not knowing that it will be taken out from my right pocket after a few years,” Mehta said.

The CJI said that various aspects will have to be looked into before taking any final decision on the matter.

Vikas Singh said, “The Election Commission could look at having a model election manifesto which says there is no harm in what you are offering, but where you are getting it from…If it declares this is the debt of the state, this debt I will take care. And this is the money I am getting from this source and I will pay to these people…”

CJI Ramana, however, expressed doubts on the effectiveness of such a model manifesto and said there were such proposals in the past for model manifestos against criminal antecedents of candidates etc. “These are all empty formalities,” he said.

Mehta added there can be a model code and that the Election Commission of India can definitely apply its mind. But the CJI did not seem to agree and said the model code will only come into effect during elections. “When will the model code come into play? It will come into play just before elections. All the four years you do certain things and last year, model code of conduct!”

Mehta said it can be a time-bound thing and can come into force immediately. To Singh’s contention that all such promises are election-related, the CJI said the court is not viewing it only from that angle but “other issues” will also have to be looked into. He added that the court was looking at it from the perspective of the country’s economy. “We are heading towards a disaster,” reiterated the Solicitor General.

“I’m little concerned about these issues…The Election Commission and government can’t say we don’t want to do. Let some people who are concerned with these matters, who can look into the pros and cons dispassionately, make a suggestion and then we can take a call…We can ask them to give a report within a time-bound manner. The ECI can call all stakeholders and take a call,” CJI Ramana said.

Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal, however, opposed leaving it to the Election Commission, saying it had become the “most favoured institution” in the country. “Please keep the ECI away from this. This is an economic issue…These are also issues of mid-day meal schemes. These are also freebies. There is free electricity for the poor. All kinds of very important schemes will pass muster. But there are some schemes which cannot pass muster. So, it is a political issue and an economic issue. Don’t make it an election issue because then you politicise the whole thing…Don’t even please refer it to the ECI,” Sibal said.

Mehta countered Sibal’s contention and said, “I would not like to undermine the sanctity of ECI.”

Sibal added, “First there should be a debate in Parliament and the Parliament should evolve something…And the Finance Commission should make suggestions which have to be accepted by the government.” Mehta disputed Sibal’s suggestion saying the “suggestion given” by him “is a recipe for not solving the problem”.

The CJI asked, “Do you think Parliament will debate this issue at all? Which political party will agree to? No political party…now will allow to take out these freebies. The reason is everybody wants these freebies. This is the reality. I’m not commenting (on) the political parties’ wisdom. But ultimately what the taxpayer or common man thinks is important.”

He added these are all policy matters and there are limits to what extent the courts can go too. “That’s why we say, let everyone participate in the debate,” the CJI said, adding, various authorities can interact with the different stakeholders, make recommendations to the government and ECI which can be implemented and a compliance report given to the court.

The CJI added that what the court is thinking is “we are not going to have a lengthy debate in this court to put guidelines. It is a matter of importance where different stakeholders have to be involved and their opinions have to be considered before taking any decision. Ultimately, it is the ECI and the government which has to implement these suggestions.” He asked the parties to come up with the proposal on what the composition of a committee to go into the issue should be.

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