New Delhi: The Supreme Court will review the right of political parties to promise populist freebies—such as television sets—in their manifestoes in the run-up to elections and then finance the programme through tax money after they are elected to power.
The review could affect the ability of parties to make promises during elections to key states that will be held later this year and parliamentary elections scheduled for the summer of 2009.
Though the court is yet to even begin hearing the case, most political parties, with the exception of the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, defended their right to make such promises. If the Supreme Court decides that such promises are not on, it could open up another front in ongoing skirmishes between the legislature and the judiciary.
On Wednesday, the court agreed to hear a public interest litigation, or PIL, challenging the right of political parties to promise freebies with a significant impact on state finances in the specific context of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, or DMK, promising free colour television sets to those households that did not have one, if it was elected to power in Tamil Nadu. The promise was made in 2006.
A bench, led by Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnan, after hearing the PIL filed by Chennai-based advocate S. Subramaniam Balaji, issued a notice to the DMK and other respondents, including the ministry of finance of Tamil Nadu, the Election Commission of India and the chief election officer, Tamil Nadu, to file their response. “We will examine the constitutionality of this issue,” the Chief Justice said.
Balaji approached the Supreme Court after the Madras high court in June 2007 refused to grant his plea to stop the DMK from spending Rs2,400 crore from the state treasury for the programme.
Senior counsel Arvind P. Datar, appearing for Balaji, brought to the court’s notice similar schemes where political parties have distributed freebies such as “sarees, dhotis, cycles and now TVs”.
Apart from challenging the fiscal probity and prudence of such promises, the petition also questions the claims of the DMK, made in the high court, that it was doing so under the omnibus provision of “public purpose” defined in Article 282 of the Constitution. The Article states that the government “may make any grants for any public purpose” from its revenues.
Reacting to the Supreme Court directive, D. Sudharsanam, leader of the Congress party in Tamil Nadu legislative assembly, defended the scheme of the DMK, its ally in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre and said five million TV sets had already been given, “ for the education and delivery of information to the poor.”
“If the apex court has sent such a notice, it is certainly welcome,” said Kiran Maheshwari, a Lok Sabha member of the BJP. “Action must be taken against any party that brazenly violates the model code of conduct by distributing freebies.”
Ruhi Tewari, Ashish Sharma and Krishnamurthy Ramasubbu contributed to this story.