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Free vaccine promise may not violate code, say former CECs – bihar election

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto promise to provide the Covid-19 vaccine for free to the people of Bihar isn’t necessarily a violation of the Model Code of Conduct, people familiar with the matter told Hindustan Times.

Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Thursday, while releasing the party’s manifesto for the upcoming polls, announced that the Covid-19 vaccine is all but ready and will be provided for free to everyone in Bihar. Sitharaman’s declaration has caused immense outrage, with the opposition asking the Election Commission of India to take suo-moto cognizance of the matter since the polls are barely a week away.

People familiar with the matter, however, told Hindustan Times that under section 123 (2) of the Representation of People’s Act, 1951, “a declaration of public policy, or a promise of publication, or the mere exercise of a legal right without intent to interfere with an electoral right, shall not be deemed to be interference within the meaning of this clause”. The clause details what can be considered ‘undue influence”.

The Model Code of Conduct, on the other hand, states that the “distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree”.

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“There is a precedent to exclude welfare schemes,” said a person familiar with the matter.

In a 2019 case against the Indian National Congress for announcing the NYAY Yojana, that promised a universal basic income of Rs 72,000 annually, the Commission had held that the manifesto promises “are not repugnant to the ideals and principles enshrined in the constitution and are not inconsistent with the letter and spirit of other provisions of the MCC”.

The Commission, in its order dated 5 May 2019, had further added that the “directive principles of the state policy enshrined in the constitution enjoin the state to frame various welfare measures for the citizens and the said scheme seems to be a welfare scheme which is not likely to vitiate the purity of the election process or exert undue influence on voters”.

“In view of the position mentioned above, there appears to be no violation of the MCC and said scheme does not fall under corrupt practices,” the Commission had said then.

According to experts, a manifesto provides political parties the freedom to make announcements they can’t make as the government.

“The political parties have a right to make such promises,” said former chief election commissioner Vikram Sampath. “Whether it is undue influence or not is for the voter to decide. One can’t take exception to parties making poll promises.”

Former CEC N. Gopalaswami said that if a government in office makes such a declaration, it cannot be construed as undue influence, but not when a political party says it in its manifesto, it is kosher. “Manifesto allows you to say things you otherwise can’t say,” Gopalaswami said.

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