Vague prescriptions

The Election Commission may have overreached itself in incorporating some guidelines on poll manifestos in the model code of conduct to be followed by parties and candidates.

It may be more a case of assuming a responsibility which cannot be rightly and effectively carried out than of assuming a power which does not exist. Election manifestos make tall promises to the people. They are sometimes fulfilled and at other times forgotten. The Supreme Court had told the commission to frame some guidelines on them and the commission has acted accordingly.

But the EC’s prescriptions are vague. They cannot be correctly interpreted and may mean different things to different parties and people in different contexts. This confusion was there even in the Supreme Court judgment. While the court felt that freebies are not illegal,  it also disfavoured them and felt they are detrimental to free and fair elections.

The commission has prescribed three norms to govern election manifestos. One is that they should not go against the ideals of the Constitution. Secondly, the welfare measures or other promises should not vitiate the purity of the poll process or unduly influence the voters.

Thirdly, manifestos should indicate the rationale for the promises and show how the funds to fulfil them will be found. Above all, the commission wants parties to make only those promises which are likely to be fulfilled. All these criteria can be interpreted by parties to suit their convenience. Parties and their rivals may also be able to find fault with each other’s promises on the basis of the same yardstick.

Televisions, grinders, laptops and other freebies on offer may be seen as necessities or wrong inducements. It will not be difficult for parties to present financial plans for their promises. It will be difficult to differentiate between a legitimate promise and a wrong offer in many cases. How can anybody decide whether a promise will be fulfilled or not? There may be a legal issue also involved in the situation. While parties issue manifestos, candidates may not strictly be held responsible for the promises.

The court or the commission are not the right authorities to make a judgement on these issues. Competitive populism may drive promises too far and to absurd levels. But it is for the voters to decide on the right and wrong or the desirability or acceptability of the promises made in the  manifestos. The judgment is best left to them.

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