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SC directs listing before three-judge bench pleas against pre-poll promises of freebies, says they require “extensive hearing”

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday directed listing before a three-judge bench pleas against the practice of political parties promising pre-election freebies, saying it appeared the issues raised before it require an “extensive” hearing.

A bench headed by Chief Justice N V Ramana noted that certain preliminary issues may be needed to be deliberated upon in these petitions.

The court order on Justice Ramana’s last day in office comes against the backdrop of the freebies versus welfare scheme debate that has sparked a political slugfest in the recent weeks.

The bench, also comprising Justices Hima Kohli and C T Ravikumar, said it was argued before it that the 2013 judgement delivered by a two-judge bench of the apex court in the matter of S Subramaniam Balaji vs The Government of Tamil Nadu and others required reconsideration.

“Looking into the complexities of the issues involved and the prayer to overrule the judgement rendered by a two-judge bench of this court in Subramaniam Balaji, we direct listing of the set of petitions before a three-judge bench after obtaining the orders from the Chief Justice of India,” it said.

In its 2013 judgement, the apex court had noted that after examining and considering the parameters laid in section 123 of the Representation of People Act(RPA), it arrived at a conclusion that the promises in the election manifesto cannot be read into section 123 for declaring it to be a corrupt practice.

The apex court on Friday said the pleas would be listed after four weeks.

“Ultimately, it appears that the issues raised by the parties require an extensive hearing before any considered order can be passed,” it said.

It noted there are certain preliminary issues that may be needed to be deliberated upon in these petitions. The issues included the scope of judicial intervention with respect to the reliefs sought in these pleas, whether any enforceable order can be passed by this court in these writ petitions and whether appointment of a commission/expert body by the court would serve any purpose.

The bench said the question raised in these petitions relates to promises made by the political parties for distribution of freebies as part of their election manifesto or during the poll speeches.

The bench further said the main contention of the petitioners is that such poll promises have an impact on the economy of the state and it cannot be permitted.

“There can be no denial of the fact that in an electoral democracy, such as us, the true power ultimately lies with the electorate.”

The apex court observed it is the electorate that decides which party or candidate will come to power and they also judge the performance of the said party or candidate at the end of the legislative term during the next round of the elections.

During the hearing on Thursday, the top court had said there must be a debate on the “serious” issue relating to the practice of political parties promising freebies and asked why cannot the Centre call for an all-party meeting on the matter.

The bench was deliberating on pleas including the one filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay opposing promises of such handouts by the parties during polls. The petitions wanted the Election Commission to invoke its powers to freeze the election symbols of these parties and cancel their registration.

While hearing the matter on August 23, the apex court had observed that all political parties were in favour of freebies and due to this a judicial attempt has been made to deal with it.

“On this issue, I can say all political parties are on one side including BJP. Everybody wants freebies. That is the reason we made an attempt,” the bench had observed.

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