The Election Commission of India has told the Supreme Court that it cannot de-register political parties for offering freebies to voters, PTI reported. It also expressed its inability to impose restrictions on a party’s policy decision of distributing freebies before or after polls.

“The Election Commission of India cannot regulate state policies and decisions which may be taken by the winning party when they form the government,” the election watchdog said in an affidavit to the court. “Such an action, without enabling provisions in the law, would be an overreach of powers.”

It is upto the voters to decide whether distribution of freebies is financially viable or if such policies have “adverse effect on the economic health of the state”, the poll panel added.

The Election Commission was responding to a petition filed by advocate and Bhartiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay stating that the promise and distribution of freebies vitiates free and fair elections in the country.

Upadhyay asked the Supreme Court to direct the poll panel “to seize the election symbol or de-register a political party if it promises or distributes freebies from public fund” before or after elections, PTI reported.

The advocate said that freebies could amount to “bribery and undue influence” as stated under Indian Penal Code Sections 171(B) and 171(C).

On January 25, the Supreme Court had issued a notice to the Election Commission, saying that political parties promising “irrational freebies” is a “serious issue”.

“Even though it is not a corrupt practice, but it creates an uneven playing field,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had said.

While submitting its affidavit on Friday, the Election Commission referred to a 2002 judgement of the Supreme Court. The court had said that political parties can be de-registered only if they had registered through fraud or forgery, if they amend their nomenclature of association, rules and regulations or if they had stopped abiding by the Indian Constitution.

The Election Commission also said that as per the provisions under the Election Symbols Order of 1968, if the poll panel prohibits freebies, then it would result in parties losing their recognition even before they display their electoral performance, Live Law reported.

It said that the aim of these provisions is to either grant or cancel recognition of a political party based on its electoral performance only, PTI reported.