India

EC asks parties to explain how they intend to finance poll promises, drawing criticism from the opposition

The Election Commission of India Tuesday proposed to political parties that they outline ways and means to raise additional resources to pay for the promises. This was in the midst of a heated debate about the financial implications of freebies promised during elections (or the revdi culture) referred to by Prime Min Narendra Modi.

In a letter to all parties to the consultation paper, EC has provided a standardised disclosure performa to allow them to disclose the quantification of the scheme’s physical coverage, financial implications, and financial availability. The EC asked parties to submit their views by October 19.

The proforma outlines the scope and extent of coverage for the promised scheme. It includes details such as whether it will be universal for families below the poverty line or specific to a community. Quantifying physical coverage, financial implications, available resources, and methods and means to raise resources to meet the additional costs of fulfilling the promises.

If voted into power, the parties must explain how they intend to raise additional resources for the scheme or programs. This could include whether they plan to increase tax and/or non-tax revenue, rationalise spending, take out additional borrowings, or do it any other way.

It will be necessary to determine the impact of additional resource-raising plans on fulfilling the promises of fiscal sustainability for the State and the Union Government.

Already, the political spectrum has been divided by the debate about freebies. The main Opposition Congress reacted sharply to the EC’s decision, saying that “this is simply NOT the business of EC.” This is against the spirit and essence of competitive politics, and it will be another nail in the coffin for democracy in India.

The move was also criticized by the RJD, DMK, and Shiv Sena. The AIADMK was cautious in its criticism, but the CPM stated that it would wait to hear from the EC before it made its position.

According to the EC, disclosing promises in a prescribed format will standardize the information and allow voters to compare and make informed decisions. The EC proposes to amend the Model Code of Conduct to make these steps mandatory.

The EC stated in a letter that, while the Model Code of Conduct requires candidates and political parties to explain the reasons for their promises as well as possible ways and means to fund them, it found that these declarations were “quite routine and ambiguous” and did not give voters enough information to make informed choices during an election.

The EC recalled the Subramaniam Balaji case, where the Supreme Court had looked at the issue and had in 2013 directed it to create guidelines in consultation with the political parties to explore the possibility that election manifestoes could be included in MCC. In 2015, the EC issued new guidelines following the court directive.

In 2019, it issued a second set of guidelines, prohibiting the release of manifestoes within the 48-hour prohibitionary period.

Sources claimed that at the meeting, which was chaired and attended by Anup Chandra Pandey (Electricity Commissioner), the consensus was that the poll watchdog can’t remain silent and ignore the negative impact of some of its promises on free and fair elections and maintaining an equal playing field for all candidates.

The EC stated that the “consequences” of insufficient disclosures by political parties are mitigated by the fact that elections are often held, allowing political parties to make electoral promises in multi-phase elections. However, they don’t have to explain their financial implications, especially on committed spending.

“Most political parties do not also submit these declarations in the time. It stated that while the Commission does not know the nature of the promises, it believes it is necessary to set disclosure requirements to allow healthy discussion on the financial implications of implementing them both in the immediate and long-term.

The Commission argued that it was vital that 2015’s guidelines are followed in spirit and letter by political parties. It stated that it had “concluded” that a prescribed format is required for disclosure by political parties of their election promises. This is to ensure standardization in information nature and to facilitate comparability.

The letter stated, “The Commission considers that the Indian electorate can exercise informed electoral decisions if there are adequate disclosures about the financial implications of the promises made.”

The EC stated that Chief Secretaries of States, Union Finance Secretary and Union Treasure Secretary will be required to update fiscal information based upon the most recent budget and revised estimates for the year of the general election.

The letter stated that the proforma allows certain fiscal information to be pre-filled by the relevant state/Central government in order to make disclosures more meaningful.

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