Friday, July 5, 2013

Letter to CEC on "Parties' Irresponsible Poll Promises" - Sent in 2008

8th May 2008

Sri N Gopalaswami, IAS
Chief Election Commissioner
Election Commission of India
Nirvachan Sadan, Ashoka Road
New Delhi.

Sub: Mainstream parties’ irresponsible poll promises – corrupt electoral practice – reg.

Dear Sri Gopalaswami ji,

I would like to bring to your attention certain inducements offered to voters by major political parties in Karnataka Assembly elections, which clearly constitute corrupt electoral practices.

True electoral politics is about legitimate and productive public policy contention between various political parties. Articulation of policy stances by parties and their candidates generally takes place in the form of poll promises (typically, compiled in the form of a ‘manifesto’) made before the elections. It is the right and indeed the solemn duty of every political party to put forth its views on critical issues, and thereby offer alternatives to the electorate. Over the decades, The Election Commission has been doing an admirable job of encouraging such legitimate political discourse and public policy contention during elections between various political parties.

Political parties are completely justified in promising state-sponsored subsidies, benefits and packages that could reduce public suffering, help fulfill potential or support the weak and the vulnerable. For instance, promising subsidized rice to the truly poor and the hungry, state-sponsored homes to the homeless and the destitute or subsidized electricity to the already-indebted farmers are all legitimate poll promises made from time to time by political parties. The specific merits and wisdom of these policies and programmes are always a matter of debate and contention, as indeed they should be. But we have to respect the legitimacy of such policies and promises as part of electioneering.

However, the mainstream political parties are increasingly adopting the path of making unethical and irresponsible poll promises. In respect of the forthcoming elections to the Karnataka State legislature, the print and electronic media have widely reported the Congress (I) party’s manifesto containing the poll promise of distributing free colour television (TV) sets to the voters. Such a reckless and irresponsible electoral promise has crossed all bounds of acceptable political campaigning. Distribution of free colour TVs with public resources cannot be regarded as legitimate public policy by any standard. In no way can it be justified as being in the cause of the larger public interest, or in furtherance of social welfare or support to the poor and underprivileged. With this promise, the Rubicon has been crossed in Indian electioneering.

Such a brazen inducement was earlier resorted to by the DMK in Tamil Nadu in the 2006 Assembly election. Sadly, the Election Commission was silent on that occasion, and now a major national party is emboldened to repeat such a promise.

Such rash and unethical poll promises are nothing but brazen attempts by the candidates and their parties to bribe the voters - collectively, by offering direct inducements. Such poll promises act as an undue influence on the electoral choice of the voters. Therefore, they are nothing but corrupt electoral practices, under Section 123(1)(A) of the Representation of People Act (1951). In no way can such corrupt electoral promises be claimed to be in pursuit of legitimate public policy or an attempt to exercise a legal right. Such blandishments and inducements to woo the electorate with public money are an undisguised attempt to indulge in corrupt and unacceptable electoral practices. These promises do not in any way fall within the constitutional obligations of the state. Therefore, such electoral promises do not fall under the category of exceptions under Section 123(2)(b) of the RP Act, 1951.

If such corrupt and unethical electoral tactics go unchecked, elections will certainly be reduced to a public auction, where votes are bought by the highest bidder. In future elections, parties could well come up with more disingenuous and unethical promises. A party may offer free motor cycles, another will promise refrigerators to all, and a third will give motor cars. Given the current trend, it is not too unthinkable that in the near future, a party would promise a hundred bottles of liquor to each family every year – completely at government’s expense! Already, the tactic of promising free colour TVs that originated in Tamil Nadu has now been adopted in Karnataka.

These developments go beyond mere electoral populism and portend danger to our democracy: mainstream political parties in their unbridled lust for power are indulging in corrupt and unethical practices at public expense and are ready to sacrifice the long-term interests of the poor and imperatives of nation building at the altar of short-term vote-maximization. So far, vote buying through money and liquor has been ubiquitous in the country. Illegitimate expenditure for such corrupt electoral practices is astronomical. In Andhra Pradesh, it is widely believed that such illegitimate expenses exceed Rs. 5 crore per Assembly Constituency for every candidate of a major traditional party. This cannot be easily controlled for want of legally admissible proof. But promise of distribution of colour TVs at public expense by a party seeking office is a brazen, public, provable corrupt electoral practice. If it is not checked by the Commission, there can be even more brazen and egregious promises of, say distribution of free liquor to every family as a part of government programme.

Free-and-fair elections form the bedrock of our democracy. And the Election Commission is vested with the Constitutional mandate of superintendence, direction and control over the entire process of the conduct of these elections. Therefore, the Commission needs to decisively intervene to stop corrupt electoral practices. We urge the Commission to act immediately and decisively in this case to discipline the errant party/parties and to check such blatant inducements and corrupt electoral practices. Otherwise public office may well become the preserve of the highest and most shameless bidder.

In view of the vital public importance of the issue, I am releasing this letter to the general public to facilitate wider debate.

With warm personal regards,

Sincerely yours,


Jayaprakash Narayan

Copy to:

1. Sri Navin B Chawla, Election Commissioner
2. Dr SY Quraishi, Election Commissioner
3. Sri R Bhattacharya, Deputy Election Commissioner

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