Luring the voters

It can be argued that a laptop or a cycle may be of immense use to a student of a BPL family and can be rationalised for knowledge creation.

Political parties and leaders are very generous in making fabulous promises and showing tantalising future to the people, the master in a democracy. Had even a fraction of these promises been actuated, the country would have been converted into a paradise long back. Promises made for the eradication of poverty, extirpation of corruption, improving the service sector beyond imagination, etc. couched in tautological words prove to be deceptive and hollow.

Some parties promise the moon and the people get nightmare. But not so any more if the new guidelines issued by the Election Commission are enforced. It categorically says that manifestos should reflect the rationale for promises made and indicate the ways and means to fulfill them. The EC has added a section on election manifestos to its model code of conduct (MCC). Several restrictions, including desisting from making announcements  that “exert undue influence on voters in exercising their franchise” will now be binding on parties in the ensuing Lok Sabha elections. The EC is emphatic, “Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.”

The whole process was initiated after the Supreme Court, in its judgment on July 5, 2013 in S. Subramaniam v. Govt of Tamil Nadu, directed the EC to frame guidelines in respect of contents of election manifestos in consultation with all recognised parties. The court observed, “Although, the law is obvious that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be construed as corrupt practice, under section 123 of the RP Act, the reality cannot be ruled out that  distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree.”
Article 324 of the Constitution enjoins the EC to hold a free and fair poll and it gives sweeping powers to the commission to ensure it. The MCC has got no statutory basis but has evolved consensually after all political parties agreed to it. But on this issue, most of the political parties appear to be thoroughly opposed to it considering it a case of overreach. The EC made it clear that it agrees in principle with the point of view that framing of manifestos is the right of political parties, it cannot gloss over the undesirable impact of some of the promises and offers on the conduct of free and fair elections and maintaining level playing field for all political parties and candidates.
The new guidelines mandate that the election manifesto shall not contain anything repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the Constitution and further that it shall be consistent with the letter and spirit of MCC, political parties should avoid making such promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of election process or exert undue influence on voters, and finally, in the interest of transparency and level playing field and credibility of promises, manifestos should specify how these are to be implemented.

Welfare measures

Regarding promises relating to welfare measures, the EC admits that the Directive Principles of State Policy enshrined in the Constitution enjoin upon the state to formulate various welfare measures for citizens and there can hardly be any objection to the promise of such measures, but it should not be such as to allure voters.
It is true that political parties make promises of distributing freebies like laptops, grinder mixers or cycles. But it is difficult to understand how it vitiates the election process when the Supreme Court has also admitted that what were once luxuries had become necessities and the concept of livelihood could not be confined to bare physical survival. However, the court threw a googly that such promises influence voters. The basic problem is that some aspects of these guidelines are quite vague and subject to interpretation.

A grinder mixer can be a boon to innumerable impoverished women who slog out in kitchen day in and day out. This will lead to increased productivity and subsequently of income due to woman’s efforts and will add to the gross national product. Similarly, a laptop or a cycle may be of immense use to a student of a BPL family and can be rationalised for knowledge creation.

Political parties can also adduce ways and means to mobilise finances, but the question is how to hold them accountable if they do not deliver on it. The EC ceases to have any role once the elections are over. Moreover, most of the members of different political parties do not go through manifestos much less voters. If everything, right from rationale to mobilisation of finances, is to be mentioned, it will become a turgid book which hardly anyone will read. Voters vote on perception, not on promises made in manifestos. Parties fighting and making filthiest accusations against one another form post-poll alliance to form government. The Bahujan Samaj Party does not publish any manifesto, and yet it gets an impressive percentage of votes. Further, voters do not go by broad-based promises like Garibi Hatao. They want specific assurances, if at all they go by manifestos.

Manifesto is derived from the Latin word manifestum which means clear or conspicuous. Its first recorded use in English is from 1620, in Nathaniel Brent’s translation of Paolo Sarpi’s History of the Council of Trent: “To this citation he made answer by a Manifesto” (p. 102). Similarly, “They were so far surprised with his manifesto, that they would never suffer it to be published.” The need of the hour is to make these manifestos binding. In the UK, an election manifesto is traditionally considered to be binding. It is not uncommon during Common Question Time for Opposition MPs to state: “In your manifesto you said… why hasn’t this happened?”

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