The Supreme Court on Friday referred a petition seeking restrictions on “freebies” by political parties to a three-judge bench, Live Law reported.

The court was hearing a public interest litigation filed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader Ashwini Upadhyay, seeking directions to the Election Commission to not allow political parties to promise certain social welfare benefits that he described as freebies.

“The issues raised by parties require extensive hearing,” Chief Justice of India NV Ramana said. “Certain preliminary hearings need to be determined, such as what is the scope of judicial intervention, whether appointment of expert body by court serve any purpose.”

The outgoing chief justice also said that some litigants had sought the reconsideration of a Supreme Court judgement in the Subramanian Balaji case, which had said that such schemes would not amount to corrupt practices.

“Looking at the complexity of issues and the prayer to overrule Subramaniam Balaji, we refer the matters to a three-judge bench,” the court said.

The Supreme Court said that the petition will be listed after four weeks, PTI reported.

Chief Justice Ramana was part of a bench with his successor UU Lalit according to the court’s custom. The proceedings were telecast live on the National Informatics Centre’s webcast portal.

Proceedings of the Supreme Court are being streamed live for the first time in its 71-year history, according to Bar and Bench.

Previous hearings of the case

During a hearing on August 3, the Supreme Court had suggested that an expert body comprising various stakeholders such as the government, the NITI Aayog, the Finance Commission, the Law Commission, the Election Commission, the Reserve Bank of India, and members of the Opposition should be formed to give their suggestions on the matter.

At the time, the Centre had told the court that political parties offering freebies to voters would have an adverse impact on the economy.

At a hearing on August 23, Chief Justice Ramana had said that the court’s main concern was that largesse in the form of “freebies” should not bleed the economy dry. He said that the Supreme Court had proposed the formation of a committee to collect the “experience and wisdom” of ordinary citizens and place a study before Parliament.

“But we find that in this issue, all political parties are on one side,” the chief justice had observed. “…Everybody wants freebies, everybody! That was exactly why we wanted a neutral body to look into the issue.”

On Wednesday, senior advocate Vikas Singh, appearing for Upadhyay, had recommended that a retired judge of the Supreme Court be made chairperson of the expert committee.

During the hearing on that day, senior advocate Kapil Sibal had expressed reservations about a proposal that political parties should disclose the source of their funds before making promises in their election manifesto.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court questioned why the Centre could not call for an all-party meeting to discuss the matter of announcing social welfare schemes in election campaigns.

Statements made by political parties

A number of political parties have filed intervention applications in the case seeking that the court should hear their stand on the matter. They have argued that social welfare schemes could not be described as freebies.

The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had cited an example of the benefits of offering schemes like free electricity to citizens. “In no imaginable reality, it could be construed as a freebie” a petition by the party had stated. “Such schemes have been introduced in order to provide basic necessities which the poor households cannot afford. They cannot be imputed to be luxuries.”

On August 18, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party told the Supreme Court that it was unfair to generalise and describe welfare programmes as freebies. Party MP Vijaya Sai Reddy said that it is the fundamental responsibility of the governments to mitigate health and education inequities as well as rural and urban disparities.

The Aam Aadmi Party, in its intervention application before the court, alleged that the petitioner wanted to oppose a particular “socialist and welfarist agenda” adopted by it that helps the poor.

The AAP alleged that Upadhyay was seeking to advance the interests of a form politics reliant on caste and communal appeals rather than promises of people’s welfare.