Why can’t government call all-party meet on freebies, Supreme Court asks Centre

Supreme Court poser comes amid its proposal to form a ‘broad-based and neutral committee of experts’ to study the issue

August 24, 2022 06:20 pm | Updated August 25, 2022 12:33 am IST - NEW DELHI

A view of Supreme Court of India. File

A view of Supreme Court of India. File | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma

The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre why it cannot call an all-party meeting to discuss ways to prevent “irrational freebies” from destroying the national economy and to draw a line between State largesse and welfare schemes.

The court’s question came even while toying with a proposal to form a “broad-based and neutral committee of experts” to study the problem of free gifts.

“Until and unless there is a process or vision among political parties that ‘we have to stop somewhere’, these types of freebies, which will destroy the economy, will continue. Nothing can happen by way of legislation, by way of Model Code of Conduct, by way of our orders. It will be unmanageable… If we pass an order, a mandamus, that from tomorrow onwards no political party should make these promises, nobody will care… So, that is why there must be a debate. The issue is serious, no doubt about it. Why can't the Government of India call for a meeting of all political parties and ask for their views on how to go ahead?” Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana, heading a three-judge Bench, asked.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the Centre, demurred, saying the court should take the lead and form an expert committee. A “comprehensive” report from the Committee would help in resolving the problem of freebies.

“All the political parties are here before the highest court, claiming that this is their fundamental right. So there is no question of starting a debate by the Government of India. We have political parties whose only wish is to distribute freebies to get elected… That is not the way forward,” Mr. Mehta submitted.

To buttress his point, Mr. Mehta read back to the court its own earlier order, proposing an expert committee comprising representatives of the government, the Opposition and other bodies like the Finance Commission, etc., to study the problem of freebies.

“But if you want a committee of representatives of the government, Opposition, etc, the biggest problem is who will head such a committee…” the Chief Justice asked.

‘Freebies party-centric’

The court indicated that the issue of freebies was party-centric.

“It is political parties who make these promises. They contest elections… Individuals do not have much importance in the present system. It is the political party, their philosophy and manifesto which are important… that is how our democracy is… Suppose I contest, I will not get 10 votes… Ultimately, all political parties, whether in power or not, have to face the reality. That is, a party in opposition can come to power tomorrow and will have to manage the affairs of the State. The government in power has to govern and also balance the economy,” Chief Justice Ramana explained.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, the amicus curiae, urged the court to not get into a “political quagmire”. He said instead of the court getting into a morass, the problem could be resolved with the aid of the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act of 2003, which makes the Centre responsible for ensuring inter- generational equity in fiscal management and long-term macro-economic stability.

But Mr. Mehta said Mr. Sibal was in fact urging the court to let things be the way they were. “People are lured by these promises. The voter is deprived of a considered decision on whom to vote for… A committee of eminent people can be formed to suggest a way forward… It can give a report in two months,” he pressed.

“If that is the case, why can’t the Government of India constitute a committee to study the impact of freebies on the economy?” Chief Justice Ramana asked.

Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi said it was very ill on the part of the government to say “I will not take any action on my own”. “Why can’t the Centre do something without depending on the court?” the senior lawyer for the Aam Admi Party asked.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, for petitioner Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, suggested former Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha could head the expert committee. Mr. Mehta suggested a retired Comptroller and Auditor General.

“No judge will preside over this… Persons who retire or who are retired have no value in this country,” Chief Justice Ramana said.

Senior advocate Arvind P. Datar said there was clear evidence from past elections that freebies could influence the outcome of elections.

Advocate Prashant Bhushan said three types of freebies were dangerous. Those which are discriminatory in nature, those which are against public policy and those rolled out immediately, say six months, before elections and disturb the level playing field.

“Mr. Bhushan says promises should not be made six months before elections. Then parties will make it nine months before polls. So, should there be a standstill in governance in view of an impending election? Today, people are not so gullible with literacy anywhere between 60% to 90%... Let us not assume that everybody can fool the public every time,” Mr. Singhvi said.

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