Supreme Court Revisiting the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment

Landmark Judgement of Subramaniam Balaji Vs TN: The Supreme Court recently referred to a three-judge Bench a series of petitions seeking a judicial direction that political parties who make “wild” promises of largesse should also reveal in their poll manifestos where they will get the money to pay for them.

Key Points:

  • The reference is a shift from the court’s own stand in the S. Subramaniam Balaji vs Tamil Nadu judgment of 2013.

What is the reason for Supreme Court’s decision to revisit the Balaji Verdict?

  • In the 2013 Balaji case judgment, the Apex court had held that making promises in election manifestos do not amount to a ‘corrupt practice’ under Section 123 of the Representation of People Act (RP).
  • But now, the Apex Court is worried that freebies promised by political parties to win elections could bleed the public exchequer dry.
  • The Courts’ recent stand is that parties who form the government riding the wave created by their pre-poll promises of free gifts are bleeding the State finances dry by actually trying to fulfil their outlandish promises using public money.
  • Therefore, the Supreme Court has decided to revisit the Balaji verdict.

What triggered the Balaji case?

  • The course of events started in 2006, during the run-up to the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections.
  • A party announced in its election manifesto that if elected to power, it would provide free colour television sets (CTVs) to every family.
  • After winning a landslide victory in the elections, the party decided to put its plan into action and allotted 750 crore from the budget for the undertaking. 30,000 TVs were eventually distributed by the government throughout the State.
  • Then again in 2011, in order to "equalise" the presents provided, the opposing party likewise released its election platform with freebies.
  • It promised electric fans, laptop computers,grinders, mixies, four gram gold thalis, a cheque of ₹50,000 for women’s marriage, green houses, 20 kg of rice to ration card holders and free cattle and sheep.

The Balaji case:

  • Balaji, a resident of Tamil Nadu, challenged the schemes in the Madras High Court.
  • He stated that the expenditure to be incurred by the State from the exchequer was “unauthorised, impermissible and ultra vires the constitutional mandates”.

Mr. Balaji’s arguments:

  • He argued that the State cannot act in furtherance of “eccentric principles of socialistic philanthropy”.
  • He argued that the promises of free distribution of non-essential commodities in an election manifesto amounts to electoral bribe under Section 123 of the RP Act.
  • Money can be taken out of the Consolidated Fund of the State only for “public purposes”.
  • The distribution of goods to certain sections of people was violative of Article 14 of the Constitution.

The State of Tamil Nadu’s arguments:

  • In response, the State of Tamil Nadu countered that promises of political parties do not constitute corrupt practice.
  • Political parties are not the State and ‘freebies’ is a nebulous term which has no legal status.
  • The promises implemented by the party after forming the government are an obligation under the Directives Principles of State Policy.
  • The State is only doing its duty to promote the welfare of its people.
  • The promises are implemented by framing various schemes/guidelines/eligibility criteria etc. as well as with the approval of the legislature.
  • Thus, it cannot be construed as a waste of public money or be prohibited by any statute or scheme.

Outcome of the Judgement

  • The High Court dismissed his case, following which he had moved the apex court.

Scope for revisiting the judgment:

  • However, the court agreed that freebies create an “uneven playing field”.
  • It had asked the Election Commission of India (ECI) to consult political parties and issue guidelines on the election manifesto and make it a part of the Model Code of Conduct.

HC's Judgement:

  • The court’s judgment held that promises by a political party cannot constitute a ‘corrupt practice’ on its part.
  • It would be “misleading” to generalize that all promises in the election manifesto would amount to corrupt practice.
  • The manifesto is a statement of the policy for a political party.
  • The question of implementing the manifesto arises only if the political party forms a government.
  • It is the promise of a future government and not of an individual candidate.

What is the significance of the Court’s move to review the Balaji judgment?

  • The Court, in its order, predicts that "freebies may create a situation wherein the State governments are forced toward impending bankruptcy and are unable to provide basic amenities due to a lack of funds."
  • The court stated that it wanted a transparent debate about whether a "enforceable" judicial order may prevent political parties from making and giving out "irrational freebies" before the three-judge Bench.
  • The case is unique as the Supreme Court is exploring whether judicial parameters can be set on a purely political act of promising freebies.

What are freebies?

  • The literal meaning of freebie is something that is given free of charge or cost.

How did freebies culture originate?

  • In India, this frequently occurs in around election time.
  • Freebies have been known to be provided to entice voters to cast their vote in a specific election.
  • They provide the recipient with only a small amount of personal gain and do nothing to improve public amenities.

Constitutional provision for the Supreme Court for reviewing its own judgements:

  • Under Article 137 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court has the power to review any of its judgments or orders.
  • The Court has the power to review its rulings to correct a “patent error” and not “minor mistakes of inconsequential import”.
  • A review is by no means an appeal in disguise.
  • That means the Court is allowed not to take fresh stock of the case but to correct grave errors that have resulted in the miscarriage of justice.