The Delhi High Court has dismissed a PIL challenging the alleged practice of political parties offering cash benefits in lieu of votes during elections.
A Division Bench comprising Acting Chief Justice Vipin Sanghi and Justice Navin Chawla was of the view that the issue has already been considered by the Supreme Court in S. Subramaniam Balaji v. State of Tamil Nadu, and the present case is no different.
In Subramaniam Balaji (supra), the issue of political parties promising freebies to voters if elected to powers was raised. In the said judgement, the Top Court had directed the Election Commission to frame guidelines, in consultation with all the recognized political parties, that directly govern the contents of the election manifesto.
Subsequently, the ECI issued guidelines, incorporated as Part VIII of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC), to be adhered to by the political parties and candidates while releasing their election manifesto for any election to the Parliament or State Legislatures. It provides that in the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, manifestos should reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. However, it may be noted that the promises made in manifestos are not enforceable under election law.
Thus, it was the argument of the Election Commission that 'freebies' are not prohibited under MCC.
The Petitioner on the other hand sought to argue that promising 'transfer of cash' in election manifesto is different from distribution of freebies and the Supreme Court had no occasion to consider the same. He argued that alluring voters on promise of instant gratification in the form of cash without exchange of any labour/ work is illegal and subverts free and fair elections. He added that such practices affect the tax payers.
Prima facie expressing disagreement with the Petitioner's submission, the Bench observed,
"How is distribution of freebies different? Whether you give it in cash or kind. Ultimately, the tax payer will have to shake out money, there's no difference."
The petitioner then pointed out that usually, direct benefit transfer is done under government schemes. However, there is no such scheme so far as promises made during election manifestos is concerned.
To this, the Bench responded that the MCC itself requires that manifestos should reflect a 'rationale' behind the promise. Hence, it dismissed the plea.
The development ensued in a petition filed by Parashar Narayan Sharma stating that practice of political parties offering cash benefits purportedly in lieu of votes is against the spirit of Section 123 (Corrupt practices) of the Representation of People's Act, 1951, opposed to the ECI's Model Code of Conduct and is violative of the Supreme Court judgment. He therefore sought a declaration that offer of cash transfer/ freebies by political parties in election manifestos is a corrupt electoral practice, and ultra vires the Constitution of India.
"Unless the growing tend of announcement of transfer of cash under the garb of doing out of freebie is declared unconstitutional and illegal, the same would in future be replicated wantonly by all political parties which would not only bring the largest democratic practice in the world to a mockery but would also ruin the economy, industry and agriculture of the nation beyond redemption," stated the plea.
A detailed order on dismissal of the issue will follow.
Case Title: Parashar Narayan Sharma v. Union of India
Citation: 2022 LiveLaw (Del) 458