Targeting electoral speech will be nothing more than a wild-goose chase: AAP on freebies in SC

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has told the Supreme Court that regulating electoral speech will amount to nothing more than a wild-goose chase, as it opposed a proposal to set up an expert body to examine the issues associated with “freebies” promised by the political parties to induce voters.

In its additional submissions, AAP said in the absence of any legislative guidance on the scope of policies that may be considered ‘freebies’ or on the consequences of promising such policies in electoral campaigns, any decision in this regard taken by a prospective expert body will be constitutionally without authority.

“The terms of reference that may be formulated for such a body must exclude considerations of electoral speeches and promises, since that would implicate concerns of freedom of speech. Further, if concerns over fiscal deficit and responsibility are indeed the point of the present proceedings, targeting and regulating electoral speech will amount to nothing more than a wild-goose chase,” said the submissions.

It further contended that the terms of reference of the expert body may not encompass the regulation, let alone prohibition, of certain types of electoral speech.

“Such a restriction or prohibition, executively or judicially imposed, would amount to a curtailment of the freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19(1)(a) without the backing of legislative sanction,” added the submissions.

The party added that electoral speeches made by unelected candidates are not, and cannot be, official statements of intent about a future government’s budgetary plans.

“In fact, they are merely statements of a party’s or a candidate’s broad ideological positions on various issues of citizen welfare, positions that then allow citizens to make informed voting decisions,” it said.

It further added, “electoral promises, while serving an important democratic function, are completely inappropriate proxies for regulating actual fiscal outgo. Trying to address issues of fiscal deficit by attacking electoral speech will both hurt the democratic quality of elections by prohibiting parties from communicating their ideological stances on welfare, while also making no progress in achieving fiscal responsibility”.

The top court while hearing a PIL from advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, had suggested for deliberation by an expert body having representatives from the Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, RBI, and political parties and other stakeholders, to examine the pros and cons of freebies announced during the polls.

The top court had observed that these promises have a significant impact on the economy.

The political party said the top court’s intervention, if any, in the interests of fiscal responsibility should instead focus on the point of actual outgo of funds from the public exchequer, that is budgetary actions of already elected governments and their fiscal planning processes.

“The Intervenor respectfully submits that the Expert Body, if constituted at all, be tasked with suggesting measures to control actual fiscal expenditure, but within the broader socialist-welfarist model of development endorsed by the Constitution of India”, it added.

AAP proposed a panel including representatives from NGOs that work at grassroots with disadvantaged groups such as SC/STs, EWS, minorities, etc, along with representatives from the government sectors.

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