When he spoke, last week, of making political parties more accountable for the promises they make during elections, Chief Justice of India (CJI) JS Khehar was merely reiterating SC’s stated position on this. In 2013, while saying that promises made in election manifestos could not be construed as ‘corrupt practice’, SC said, “freebies … (shake) the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”. Which is why, the Election Commission (EC) then came out with guidelines on election manifestos that said political parties needed to “broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for (promises) … trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled”. In any case, whether or not there is a formal mechanism to punish political parties that don’t fulfil their poll promises, there can be little doubt voters keep this in mind and, if there is a viable alternative, punish those not fulfilling their promises—also, it is not clear how a political party can be legally punished for not meeting promises like more jobs/prosperity or how the means for this can be indicated in an election manifesto.
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Ironically, with political parties now fulfilling more of their promises than in the past, the impact on government treasuries can be quite serious. Ever since the BJP promised to waive off loans of small and marginal farmers in the UP campaign last month, and then fulfilled this on coming to power, there have been similar demands in other states as well. And, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came to power in Delhi and slashed electricity rates as it had promised, some other states felt compelled to do the same—if taxes on residential properties are now to be abolished, as AAP is promising if it wins the municipal polls, this is certain to spread to other cities, and with fairly serious consequences given how such a large part of state government funds come from property taxes. While all such promises, when met, have a deleterious impact on other sections of society—the costs of waiving farmer loans, for instance, have to be paid for by taxpayers shelling out more each year—the Constitution does not allow the courts to get into the rights and wrongs of government policy. Where SC can, however, take a strong stance and teach political parties to keep their election rhetoric in check is when it comes to reservations policy. While political parties are prone to promise higher levels of reservations to various caste groups, SC has made it clear this cannot go beyond 49%. While even 49% seems too high, political parties are trying to go beyond this and seeking protection under various sections of the law—were SC to come down on this, it would be a welcome step.