Freebies and Election Manifestos: New Developments

In a blog
post last year
, I had written about the (then) recently inserted Part
VIII of the Model Code of Conduct
(MCC) issued by the Election Commission
of India (ECI). Part VIII deals with Election Manifestos issued by political
parties. Clause (iii) of Part VIII requires that political parties explain the
rationale for promises made in manifestos, and indicate the means to meet the
financial requirements for such promises. Broadly, the points I raised in the
post were as follows: 
  1. Part VIII was incorporated in the MCC on 19
    February 2014 following the direction of the Supreme Court in Subramaniam
    Balaji v. State of Tamil Nadu
    ,
    where the issue at hand was the
    distribution of freebies by political parties.
  2. Through an RTI application, I found that the
    insertion of Part VIII was not preceded by consensus among the political
    parties, and was in fact opposed by many parties.
  3. The response to my RTI application also
    revealed that no notices had been
    sent to political parties for violation of Part VIII as of 2 February 2015.
    This was despite the fact that several parties in many election seasons promises
    freebies in their manifestos.
  4. One of the key reasons for inaction may have
    been the lack of consensus during the framing of Part VIII. Moreover, the ECI
    admittedly lacks the power to legally enforce the MCC. As former CEC SY
    Quraishi notes in his book,
    the MCC is only born out of consensus among the political parties.

Two days ago, in an interesting development,
the ECI has issued notices to Tamil Nadu politicians Jayalalitha
(General Secretary, AIDMK) and Karunanidhi
(President, DMK). The notice gave time till yesterday (5.00 PM) for the parties
to explain their stand and to comply with the requirements of Part VIII. In
case of a failure to do so, the ECI stated that it would take “further
appropriate action” against the parties. Since MCC arguably lacks strict legal
sanctity, one can only speculate about the future course of action the ECI
might take. Mint
quoted an anonymous ECI official stating: “This is a first of a kind notice by
the EC. The first time that a political party has been asked to explain its
stance under section 8 of the model code of conduct regarding promises in poll
manifestos. We will factor in their responses and a final call will be taken on
it”.
Nonetheless, the notice itself is a positive
development. If enforced, such required disclosures enhance voter autonomy and
assist them in making informed choices. Nobel Laureates Shiller and Akerlof
make a case for regulation in their new book, Phishing
for Phools
, by arguing that due to behavioural biases, sometimes competition
itself drives market competitors to
indulge in manipulation and deception (otherwise, the competitors are likely to
lose out). Electoral competition is a fine example. Elsewhere,
I have argued that Part VIII is a fairly uncontroversial disclosure ‘nudge’ – which
is a policy instrument that seeks to non-coercively steer behaviour. In other words, Part VIII does not close
off any choices, and leaves the ultimate decision to the voters, while only
mandating disclosures by political parties.
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