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New Delhi [India], August 17 (ANI): The Supreme Court on Wednesday said that it cannot prevent political parties from making promises during the election campaigns but the question is what constitutes right promises and what is the right way of spending public money.

A bench of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, Justices JK Maheshwari, and Hima Kohli observed that it was essential to define what is a freebie as the issue pertaining to what constituted freebies and what doesn't, has become increasingly complicated.

The bench observed, "We cannot prevent political parties from making promises. The question is what constitutes right promises. Can we describe the promise of free education as a freebie? Can free drinking water, minimum essential units of power etc. be described as freebies? Can consumer products and free electronics, be described as welfare?""The concern right now is what is the right way of spending public money. Some people say money is wasted, some say it is welfare. The issues are getting increasingly complicated. You give your opinions, ultimately, after debate and discussion, we will decide," said the bench.

CJI Ramana said that even after making promises to the electorate, some parties were still not elected.

The bench cited an example of schemes such as MNREGA, which gave citizens "dignity of living".

The apex court posted the matter for hearing on August 22 and asked parties in the case to file their suggestions by Saturday.

The top court was hearing the plea filed by advocate Ashwini Upadhyay seeking direction to seize election symbols and deregister political parties that promised to distribute irrational freebies from public funds.

Political parties like Aam Aadmi Party, Congress, and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have sought to intervene in the matter and opposed the plea.

Senior advocate P Wilson, appearing for DMK, contended that the petitioner is trying to convert India from a "socialist country to a capitalist country".

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, said, "If our understanding of social welfare is to distribute everything for free, then I am sorry to say but that is an immature understanding."Earlier, the Supreme Court had said that promising and distributing freebies by political parties during elections is a "serious issue" and an amount has to be spent on infrastructure etc. It had said that the economy losing money and the welfare of people, both have to be balanced.

The CJI also said that he is "strict orthodox" and doesn't want to encroach on the areas meant by the legislature.

Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for Aam Aadmi Party, had opposed the PIL saying there is confusion between giving freebies and welfare schemes, and the word freebies is used in the very wrong manner.

AAP had filed an application stating that electoral promises such as free water, free electricity, and free transport are not 'freebies' but these schemes are absolutely essential in an unequal society.

Solicitor General had told the bench that if we say distributing freebies is the only way to achieve welfare schemes then it is a road to economic disaster and suggested that till the legislature is doing anything on freebies, Supreme Court can lay down guidelines.

On petitioner's request for de-registration of political parties promising freebies, CJI had said he doesn't want to enter the area of de-registering political parties etc. as its an "undemocratic arena" and "we are a democracy after all".

Election Commission in an affidavit had supported the top court's decision to set up an expert committee to examine regulatory measures on freebies announced by political parties ahead of elections, however, declined to be part of the panel.

The apex court had said that there is a need consisting of Niti Aayog, Finance Commission, ruling and opposition parties, Reserve Bank of India, and other stakeholders to make suggestions on how to control freebies by political parties.

Declining to be part of the expert body, the poll panel took objection to the apex court's oral observations during a hearing where it had said that if the Commission had taken steps, this problem would not have arisen. The Commission said the remarks caused "irreparable damage" to its reputation built over the years.

The Commission had pointed out that it was the Supreme Court in its 2013 judgment which had held that promises made by political parties and candidates in their manifestos could neither be construed as a corrupt practice under the Representation of the People Act nor the violation of level playing field (Article 14).

The top court had also asked the Central government to take a stand on the need to control the issue of political parties promising to distribute irrational freebies.

The CJI had also sought the opinion of senior advocate Kapil Sibal, who was present in court for some other matter, on freebies by political parties.

"It's a serious issue but difficult to control politically. The Finance Commission when it does allocation to various states can take into account the debt of the state and the quantum of freebies. The Finance Commission is the appropriate authority to deal with it. Maybe we can invite the Commission to look into this aspect. The centre cannot be expected to issue directions," Sibal had said.

The plea had claimed that political parties' arbitrarily promises or irrational freebies for wrongful gain and to lure voters in their favor is analogous to bribery and undue influences.

It claimed that promise or distribution of irrational freebies from public funds before elections could unduly influence the voters, shake the roots of a free and fair election, and disturb the level playing field, besides vitiating the purity of the election process. (ANI)

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