The Supreme Court on Thursday refused to consider the question of de-recognising political parties who resort to freebies. “De-recognition of parties is an undemocratic thing ... I will not go into all that,” Chief Justice NV Ramana, heading a Bench, orally observed.

The apex court was considering the question of reining in the practice of political parties offering “irrational freebies” to the electorate if they are voted to power, especially in States already drowning in debt. But the court said ‘freebies’ are different from government’s welfare schemes.

It said care-free promises and distribution of freebies by political parties and actual government welfare schemes were as different as chalk and cheese. One leads to sheer loss to the national economy while the other feeds the poor in drought-ridden areas and distributes care during Covid-19, the Supreme Court said.

‘Elevated to an art’

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, for petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay, said States have ₹15-lakh crore debt. “Public money should not be misused by political parties whose only intention is to gain and retain power,” Singh said. Senior advocate Arvind Datar, also for the petitioner side, said: “Giving laptops, TVs and gold chains cannot be to promote Directive Principles of State Policy.”

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, agreed with the court’s proposal to form an expert body to recommend guidelines against freebies. He said the “freebie culture” has been “elevated to an art” by some parties. “Sometimes, elections are fought only on the promise of freebies. It is a dangerous situation if distribution of freebies is considered the only way to reach out to the electorate ... We are leading the country to a disaster,” Mehta submitted.

The top law officer even suggested that the proposed expert body should, along with representatives of national political parties, RBI, NITI Aayog, Finance Commission, etc, have members of the industry. He pointed out that some of these sectors, like electricity, were already “stressed” by the distribution of freebies by certain State governments.

Finding a balance

Chief Justice Ramana said the court is striving for a balance between welfare requirements of the people, especially the poor and the downtrodden, and the need to avert a national economic loss through unbridled distribution of largesse by political parties to hold on to power. The CJI referred to how political parties, when they come into power, use freebies to regularise the illegal acts of sections of society.

“People who violated the law gain through freebies while people who chose to abide the law are punished ... What is the message being given when freebies include regularisation of illegal acts?” Chief Justice Ramana asked.

Mehta said ordinary tax payers, when they come face-to-face with crumbling public infrastructure, would wonder where their money has gone. “They will not understand it if freebies become a norm,” the Solicitor General said.

The court said it is time to trigger a debate on the issue which raises “serious concern”. “Financial restrictions” need to be debated. The Bench asked the parties to give written suggestions and posted the case to August 17.