This Article is submitted by –
- Abhishek Goyal
“To win the people, always cook them some savoury that pleases them[i].”
George Orwell in one of his renowned books, Animal Farm, talks about a situation which is quite germane even in present times. The book primarily discusses about a revolution kindled by the ideologies of independence, equality, freedom, etc., which, though, eventually successful, however, fails to accomplish the goals on which it was premised. In fact, the new regime, which is established consequent to such upheaval, duplicates the behavior of the ousted autocrats. In a way, the eventual consequence of the rebellion is a mere change of the authority in power, without fructification of the assurances made by the pioneer(s) of such uprising.
The situation discussed by Orwell is quite relatable even today, despite passage of several years when this book was first published. Evidently, each election brings with itself a long list of assurances and promises by the contesting parties/ candidates, which are destined to fail with a passage of time. Come election; be it for the Parliament, Legislative Assemblies of States, Municipal Corporations, etc., the voters are overwhelmed with promises of better and an improved government and life style, which, regrettably, do not eventually materialize. In fact, history is witness to the fact that even the parties established with a goal to sweep away the extant malpractices in society eventually turn a blind eye towards the suffering of masses, party’s own foundational and core principles/ assurances, once in power. The eventual consequence of the entire saga is a persistence of apathy, though, under the name and banner of new administrators.
Under such circumstances, remarks of Emma Goldman, “Politicians promise you heaven before election and give you hell after” seem quite apt considering the apathy demonstrated by ruling authority, once in power. Clearly to a rational mind, such an act of newly formed government would necessarily amount to a breach of trust and promises. However, unfortunately, remedies against such blatant violation of trust are eluding under the existing laws. Therefore, each time an election is held, voters cast their respective mandate(s) stimulated with new assurances, declarations, promises, etc., and with a hope of reformation, though, being aware that nothing substantial would alter in the long run. In fact, this vicious circle continues unabated and generations pass with a fading hope that someone somewhere will deliver their end of bargain.
The term ‘manifesto’ is generally understood[ii] as a, “written statement of the beliefs, aims, and policies of an organization, especially a political party.” As per the United Kingdom’s Parliamentary Glossary[iii], a manifesto “contains the set of policies that the party stands for and would wish to implement if elected to govern.” Across the world, genesis of any electoral campaign commences with the drafting of a manifesto, declaring the underlying ideals, goals and principles of a political party/ candidate. This is followed up with repeated affirmations of such goals by the members of these political parties in their election campaigns. Understandably, the purpose behind a manifesto is to apprise the voters of party’s ideologies, on one hand and to motivate individuals to join and associate with such parties in their endeavor, on the other. Unfortunately, though, these promises are vehemently professed to be binding by candidates at the time of campaigning, however, are soon lost from sight; under piles of waste and dust soon after conclusion of election process, only to be invigorated at the time of fresh elections.
Considering the importance of manifestos in inspiring the minds of the voters to cast their mandate(s), it had often been proposed that some legal and binding sanctity must be deemed thereupon. Accordingly, petitions seeking clarification and acknowledgement of binding status to manifesto(s) have been moved before the judiciary by several individuals, from time to time. In one of such petitions[iv], directions were sought, inter alia, against, “competent authority to take steps to make the manifesto a legal binding document and direct competent authority to take action against Election Commission for not initiating action against political parties and person for violating manifesto.” Pertinently, the reliefs sought in the said proceedings were declined by the Hon’ble High Court at Delhi and same was accordingly, dismissed. Subsequently, even an appeal filed against the said judgment of the Hon’ble High Court was dismissed by the Hon’ble Supreme Court[v], in limine.
The Hon’ble High Court, while pronouncing its judgment in the aforesaid case, noted, “..in ANZ Grindlays Bank Pie Vs. Commissioner, MCD 1995 II AD (Delhi) 573 where, dealing with an argument of promissory estoppel and legitimate expectations on the basis of election manifesto, it was held that election manifesto of a political party howsoever boldly and widely promulgated and publicised, can never constitute promissory estoppel or provide foundation for legitimate expectations. It was further held that it is common knowledge that political parties hold out high promises to the voters expecting to be returned to power but it is not necessary that they must be voted in by the electorate; the political parties may commit to the voters that they would enact or repeal certain laws but they may not succeed in doing so for reasons more than one and they know well this truth while making such promises and the electorate to which such promises are made also knows it. It was further held that neither the plea of promissory estoppel nor the plea of legitimate expectations can be founded thereon.”
Significantly, prior to the aforesaid decisions, in another proceeding[vi] before the Hon’ble Supreme Court, the Hon’ble Court was called upon to, inter alia, determine whether the promises made in an election manifesto for the distribution of freebies amount to corrupt practices as defined under Section 123 of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951 (“RP Act”). The contention made on behalf of the Appellant in the instant proceeding was premised on the fact that the “promises of freebies such as colour TVs, mixer-grinders, laptops, etc. are in form part of an election manifesto of a political party but in substance is a bribe or inducement under Section 123….the promise of this nature indeed induces the voters thereby affecting the level playing field between the candidates, which in turn disrupts free and fair election.”. The Hon’ble Court[vii], in turn, though, found this argument as ‘appealing’, however, expressed difficultly in issuing any blanket order restraining making of assurances in manifesto (which need not always be in the nature of distribution of freebies).
In fact, as per the Hon’ble Court, “it will be misleading to construe that all promises in the election manifesto would amount to corrupt practice” and that the question of implementation of assurances arise only when a party comes into power. Further, as per the Hon’ble Court[viii], “provisions relating to corrupt practice are penal in nature and, therefore, the rule of strict interpretation must apply and hence, promises by a political party cannot constitute a corrupt practice on the part of the political party as the political party is not within the sweep of the provisions relating to corrupt practices.” Lastly, it was noted by the Hon’ble Supreme Court that it is, “not within the domain of this Court to legislate what kind of promises can or cannot be made in the election manifesto” and that “courts cannot issue a direction for the purpose of laying down a new norm for characterising any practice as corrupt practice.”
Pertinently, notwithstanding the aforetasted judicial limitations the Hon’ble Court duly noted, “[a]lthough 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.” Further,appreciating the limited power of the Courts to issue directions to the legislature to legislate on a particular issue, the Hon’ble Court in the said case, directed the Election Commission (“Commission”), in consultation with all the recognized political parties,to frame guidelines, governing the content of election manifesto. It was, accordingly, directed by the Hon’ble Court that the Election Commission, “as when it had acted while framing guidelines for general conduct of the candidates, meetings, processions, polling day, party in power etc. In the similar way, a separate head for guidelines for election manifesto released by a political party can also be included in the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties & Candidates.”
Pursuant to the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the aforesaid case, the Commission held a meeting[ix] with representatives of National and State recognized Parties for the formulation of guidelines for election manifestos. Consequent to such deliberations/ meeting, Part VIII- Guidelines on Election Manifestos (“Guidelines”) under the Model Code of Conduct for the Guidance of Political Parties and Candidates (“Model Code of Conduct”) was introduced/ framed.
Under Clause 3 of Part VIII of the Guidelines it has been specifically provided 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 other provisions of Model Code of Conduct. It has been further provided therein that, though, there can be no objection to the promise of welfare measures based in tune with the Directive Principles of State Policy, however, “political parties should avoid making those promises which are likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on the voters in exercising their franchise.” Lastly, it has been envisioned under the Guidelines, “[i]n the interest of transparency, level playing field and credibility of promises, it is expected that manifestos also reflect the rationale for the promises and broadly indicate the ways and means to meet the financial requirements for it. Trust of voters should be sought only on those promises which are possible to be fulfilled.”
Significantly, though, a majority of the provisions/ stipulations[x] under the Model Code of Conduct are already contained in various laws and are therefore enforceable in the manner as provided therein, however, no statutory provisions related to election manifestos exist under the RP Act or elsewhere, till date. Accordingly, despite specific guidelines under the Model Code of Conduct relating to political manifestos, in the absence of penal and deterrent consequences for their violation, the said guidelines have failed to prove effective.
Consequently and unfortunately, a majority of population in our country continues to be misguided under the false promises and assurances made at the times of elections, hoping against hope, for a better future. In distinction, those who understand the gimmicks of politicians and have long lost hope, regrettably, opt not to exercise their mandate. Under such circumstances, though, the apprehension of the judiciary to interfere beyond an extent is understandable, however, the sheer reluctance of the legislature to enact a law imposing a degree of accountability on future and prospective candidates and parties, is difficult to comprehend. Nikita Khrushchev once remarked, “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build bridges even when there are no rivers.” Unfortunately, that seems to be a worldwide reality, today. However, for a better tomorrow and for an unblemished government, urgent actions are required to ensure transparency in election process from its inception. At the same time, it is much needed to ensure that promises made at the time of elections do not evaporate with a passage of time.
“The views of the authors are personal“
[ii] Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/manifesto (last visited August 30,2020)
[iii] https://www.parliament.uk/site-information/glossary/manifesto/ (last visited August 30, 2020)
[iv] Mithilesh Kumar Pandey v. Election Commission of India, W.P.(C) No.1950/2014 & CM No.4077/2014; dated 16.09.2014
[v] Mithilesh Kumar Pandey v. Election Commission of India & Ors., SLP(C) No. 028291/ 2015- dated 28.09.2015
[vi] S. Subramaniam Balaji v. State of T.N., Civil Appeal No. 5130/2013, arising out of SLP(C) No. 21455/2008
[vii] S. Subramaniam Balaji v. State of T.N., (2013) 9 SCC 659
[viii] Hon’ble Court clarified, “It is not a promise of an individual candidate. Section 123 and other relevant provisions, upon their true construction, contemplate corrupt practice by individual candidate or his agent. Moreover, such corrupt practice is directly linked to his own election irrespective of the question whether his party forms a Government or not. The provisions of the RP Act clearly draw a distinction between an individual candidate put up by a political party and the political party as such. The provisions of the said Act prohibit an individual candidate from resorting to promises, which constitute a corrupt practice within the meaning of Section 123 of the RP Act. The provisions of the said Act place no fetter on the power of the political parties to make promises in the election manifesto.”
[ix] Meeting held on 12.08.2013 at Nirvachan Sadan, New Delhi under the Chairmanship of Mr. V.S.Sampath, Chief Election Commissioner (then).
[x] Refer to the Sixty First Report (Electoral Reforms-Code of Conduct for Political Parties and Anti Defection Law) of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice.