Monday, May 16, 2016

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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