The Election Commission of India has said that the free Covid-19 promise made by the BJP in the run-up to the Bihar election is not a violation of the Model Code of Conduct.
In its 28 October response to a representation from activist Saket Gokhale that sought action under the model code of conduct, the EC has cited three provisions from the MCC which include that the “state election manifestos should not contain anything repugnant to the Constitution; should avoid making promises that vitiate the purity of the electoral process or exert undue influence on the voter and trust of the voters should be sought only on promises that can be fulfilled”. HT has seen the communication.
Gokhale had alleged the promise was discriminatory and misleading as India’s vaccine policy had not been announced yet.
The EC letter adds that manifestos are always issued by particular parties for a particular election. Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, while releasing the party’s manifesto for the Bihar polls, announced that the Covid-19 vaccine is all but ready and will be provided for free to everyone in the state. Sitharaman’s declaration has caused immense outrage, with the opposition asking the Election Commission to take suo-moto cognizance of the matter since the polls are barely a week away.
“In view of the above, no violation of any of the provisions of Model Code of Conduct has been observed in the instant matter,” states the EC’s reply to Gokhale.
People familiar with the matter had earlier told Hindustan Times that there is precedent for the Commission to exclude what constitutes “welfare schemes”.
“There is a precedent to exclude welfare schemes,” said a person familiar with the matter.
The person added that a 2019 case against the Indian National Congress for announcing the NYAY Yojana, that promised a universal basic income of Rs 72,000 annually, the Commission had held that the manifesto promises “are not repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the constitution and are not inconsistent with the letter and spirit of other provisions of the MCC”.
The Commission, in its order dated 5 May 2019, had further used the same three provisions to strike down the case. It had said that the “directive principles of the state policy enshrined in the constitution enjoin the state to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and the said scheme seems to be a welfare scheme which is not likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on voters”.
“In view of the position mentioned above, there appears to be no violation of the MCC and said scheme does not fall under corrupt practices,” the Commission had said then.
Hindustan Times on 23 October had reported that experts believed a manifesto provides political parties the freedom to make announcements they can’t make as the government.
“The political parties have a right to make such promises,” former chief election commissioner VS Sampath had said. “Whether it is undue influence or not is for the voter to decide. One can’t take exception to parties making poll promises.”
Former Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) N Gopalaswami said that if a government in office makes such a declaration, it cannot be construed as undue influence, but not when a political party says it in its manifesto, it is kosher. “Manifesto allows you to say things you otherwise can’t say,” Gopalaswami said.