The Supreme Court on Wednesday raised a crucial question on whether universal healthcare, access to drinking water and consumer electronics fall under the purview of ‘freebies’ or the rightful claims of a citizen. The top court wondered if the definition of a ‘freebie’ needs to be decided upon before adjudicating on a ban on such populist announcements in election manifestos to woo voters ahead of polls.
“One of the suggestions is that state political parties cannot be prevented from making promises to the electorate. Now it has to be defined what is freebie. Can universal healthcare, access to drinking water, access to consumer electronics be treated as freebies,” Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana asked while highlighting national schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MREGA).
“There are schemes like MNREGA which gives dignity of living. I dont think promises alone are the basis of parties being elected solely. Some makes promises and even then they are not elected. All of you give your opinions and then after debate only we can come to a conclusion,” the CJI said.
The bench headed by the CJI made these observations while hearing a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by BJP’s Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay. In the PIL, Upadhyay sought directions from the Centre and the Election Commission (EC) to undertake measures to hold parties accountable for making such promises in their election manifestos. In the plea, Upadhyay, while opposing the culture of freebies, asked the Centre and the EC to regulate the manifestos of such parties making such promises.
While hearing the plea, the SC maintained that all stakeholders have to be consulted in order to understand what contributes to freebies. The SC will resume hearing the case on August 22.
Meanwhile, the plea has drawn sharp criticism from opposition parties including AAP which has called Upadhyay’s PIL as “political interest litigation.” Interestingly, the AAP national convenor and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has announced free electricity and free education in government schools while campaigning in poll-bound Gujarat.
In an intervention application filed by the AAP, the party said, “If the idea is resource conservation within the nation, then the beginning point of that should not be the deserving masses who are constitutionally entitled to support in attaining a dignified standard of living.”
The Centre has argued before the top court that freebies affect the fiscal health of a country. While the AAP has maintained that if fiscal health remains the concern, then the discussion should be on the emoluments and benefits already being given to the MPs, MLAs and politicians.