True to its nature (fitrat), the Congress Party has yet again violated established democratic norms by announcing the direct cash transfer scheme right in the midst of an election. The announcement of the scheme last week by two central ministers - P.Chidambaram and Jairam Ramesh - weeks before polling in Gujarat, reminds one of the spurious loan melas organized by the party during Indira Gandhi's prime ministership in order to garner votes.
The party, which commanded a huge majority in parliament in the early 1970s, forced public sector banks to hold such melas across the country and dole out loans, largely to its supporters. From those days the party has mastered the art of misusing public funds to boost its electoral prospects.
The two central ministers made the announcement of the cash transfer scheme at the headquarters of the Congress Party, making it amply clear that the ruling party was determined to milk the government's decision for votes.
"Aap Ka Paisa, Aapke Haath" was how Jairam Ramesh, a man known for coining catchy slogans, summed up the scheme. The fact that the hand (Haath) is the party's election symbol, is lost on nobody. But how can such a huge scheme be announced when the Model Code of Conduct has come into force after the announcement of the poll schedule for the Himachal and Gujarat state assemblies and voters in the latter state are scheduled to exercise their franchise mid-December?
The timing of the government's announcement is clearly objectionable if one reads the Model Code of Conduct drafted by the Election Commission for the guidance of political parties and with particular reference to parties in power. Part VII of this code says: "The party in power whether at the Centreor in the State or States concerned, shall ensure that no cause is given for any complaint that it has used its official position for the purposes of its election campaign." It also prohibits ministers from making"grants/payments" after elections are announced or announce financial grants in any form.
The Code also gets into the nitty gritty by saying that ministers should not use official machinery and personnel, vehicles and state aircraft or monopolise public places and maidans or use government rest houses. Thus, when the Model Code of Conduct prohibits even minor misdemeanors like misuse of government vehicles and personnel by the ruling party in an election campaign, how can a ruling party announce a scheme like cash transfers which involves humongous sums of public money, right in the midst of the election process in a state? Apart from the Model Code of Conduct, there are orders passed by the Election Commission, ticking off ministers and MPs for even minor infringements of the Code. In each of these cases, the Commission has harped on the principle of "level playing field" in the election arena. For example, on April 5, 2006 the electronic media highlighted an announcement by the then Minister for Human Resource Development Mr.Arjun Singh that the government had decided to reserve 27% quota for other backward classes (OBCs) in Central Government funded educational institutions, like, IIMs, IITs and Central Universities from the coming academic year 2006-2007.
Following a complaint, the Election Commission said that this announcement by Mr. Singh was prima facie in violation of the Model Code of Conduct which was in force from March 1, 2006 in the context of the general elections to the Legislative Assemblies of Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Puducherry. The Commission also said that "In the upholding of the Model Code of Conduct the party and persons in power have, for obvious reasons, a higher responsibility and they are expected not only to uphold it but should also be perceived to be so doing".
Earlier, on May 1, 2004, in a case pertaining to defacement of public property and putting up of election posters and banners in Puducherry in violation of its orders, the Election Commission issued a notice to the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) asking it to show cause why its recognition as a political party should not be withdrawn. In this case the commission cited Section 16 A of the Election Symbols (Reservation and Allotment) Order, 1968 which gives the commission the power to suspend or withdraw recognition of a political party for its failure to observe the Model Code of Conduct or follow lawful directions and instructions of the Commission. As can be seen from the wording of the Model Code of Conduct and the commission's own orders, it is obvious that the union government's announcement on direct cash transfer is a violation of the Code.
Following a formal complaint by the BJP, the Election Commission issued notice to the government. The government has responded and said that the pronouncement pertained to an old policy, announced earlier. It has said that the eligible beneficiaries will not receive anything more that what they were entitled to under various schemes prior to launch of the scheme and that in any case, the scheme takes effect only after January 1, 2013. But, these explanations do not square up with the claim of Chidambaram and Ramesh that this scheme is a "game-changer". Also, the mere fact that the scheme takes affect only after the Gujarat election is no solace, because the announcement, which is by way of an inducement for voters, has come weeks before the date of polling.
Let us not forget that the Nehru-Gandhis have been in the habit of packaging government programmes as munificent offerings from them to the people of India. The Cash transfer scheme is yet another humongous programme run on public money, but advertised as a gift from the Congress Party and its first family. The Congress Party is adept at this and the scandalous loan melas organized in the 1970s bear testimony to this. This blatant attempt to package and market government programmes run on public money as an act of generosity by a family or a party towards the people, must, in the larger interests of our democracy and political plurality, be put an end to.
Since the Congress Party's election symbol is the Hand, the Election Commission must prohibit the government from advertising the scheme, even later, as "Aapka Paisa, Aap Ke Haath", if it truly believes in ensuring a level playing field in the electoral arena. Meanwhile, the Election Commission, which had threatened to withdraw recognition to the AIADMK, merely for putting up posters in violation of the Code, has merely expressed its "unhappiness" over the government's announcement of cash transfer and said this was "avoidable" when the election process was on. The commission's order that the scheme should be implemented only after the Gujarat elections are over is meaningless because the government itself has said the scheme will kick off after January 1. Why this tepid response to such a gross violation by the Congress? Is the commission's bluster reserved only for smaller parties? Is this how the commission ensures a level playing field?