The Supreme Court of India recently issued a notice on a writ petition challenging the cash assistance offers announced by the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, characterizing them as ‘election freebies.’ The bench issued notice to various parties, including the Union of India, the States of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, and the Election Commission of India. The matter has been scheduled for further proceedings after four weeks.
The bench, led by Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, indicated that the petition would be tagged with an earlier case that addressed the issue of election freebies (Ashwini Upadhyayv Union of India, Writ Petition (Civil) 43 of 2022), which was referred to a three-judge bench in August 2022.
*The Petitioner’s Argument
The petitioner, Bhattulal Jain, argued that despite the precarious financial situations of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, as evidenced by reports from the Reserve Bank of India, the Chief Ministers of these states have announced cash benefits a few months ahead of the upcoming assembly elections scheduled for the end of this year. The petitioner emphasized that the situation in Madhya Pradesh is so dire that the state has mortgaged public properties to secure loans.
In response to the petitioner’s contentions, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud asked, “Before elections, all kinds of promises are made. Can we control them?”
The petitioner’s counsel responded by asserting the need to draw a line between what constitutes the public interest and what does not. The counsel emphasized the contentious nature of distributing cash benefits, stating, “Nothing is more atrocious than permitting the government to Distribute cash. Six months before elections, these things start. Ultimately, the burden falls on the tax-paying citizens of this country.”
The Court’s Response
The bench agreed to consider the matter further and asked the petitioners to replace the Chief Ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh with the respective state governments in the array of parties.
The petitioner’s main contention revolved around the argument that the funds in the Consolidated Fund of India should not be utilized by a Chief Minister to “lure” voters before elections. The petition sought a declaration that promising electoral freebies using public funds to entice voters constitutes offenses of bribery and undue influence under Sections 171B and 171C of the Indian Penal Code.
Additionally, the petitioner requested the framing of guidelines to regulate Chief Ministers’ announcements of offers using consolidated funds before elections. The petition emphasized the importance of taxpayer rights in monitoring the use of public money, stating, “No government can declare free electricity, free water, or loan waivers without the approval of the legislative assembly, irrespective of which government is ruling.”
This case underscores the ongoing debate regarding the promises and incentives offered by political parties and leaders ahead of elections. The Supreme Court’s decision to issue notice and consider the matter in conjunction with a related case highlights the significance of addressing election-related practices that involve the distribution of benefits and financial incentives to voters. It remains to be seen how the court will navigate this complex issue and whether guidelines will be established to regulate such practices in the future.