Supreme Court on Thursday observed that legislation barring political parties from offering voters freebies is not advisable and to de-register them for making such promises would be “anti-democratic”.

Apex court also protested the Election Commission’s affidavit in the matter being leaked to the media.

The court said the economy is losing money but people’s welfare has to be balanced. “That’s why there is a need for this debate and there must be someone to put thoughts to this vision,” it said.

The Supreme Court, while hearing a petition, had a week ago suggested setting up an expert committee “to take a holistic and comprehensive view of the matter and make their recommendations”. The Election Commission declined to be part of the committee, citing its status as a constitutional body.

Regarding the petition’s demand that political parties which announce freebies be de-registered, the court said it will not look into that aspect. “That is (de-registration) an anti-democratic thing. We are a democracy after all,” it said.

The court expressed its displeasure over the contents of the Election Commission’s affidavit being made public. “We’ve to read affidavits in newspapers,” it said. The court will hear the matter again on August 17.

The Commission’s lawyer referred to a previous Supreme Court judgment, saying a provision can be made under the Representation of People’s Act for political parties to say in their manifestos that they will not announce freebies in elections.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who argued for the government, said such a provision would be difficult as most freebies are not part of parties’ manifestos but are declared during rallies and speeches.

“Many public sector companies, specially electricity companies, are under serious financial stress. They should also be heard. A committee of RBI, NITI Aayog and stressed sectors [should be set up]. Welfare schemes are good but distributing freebies has to be restrained,” he said.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, however, noted, “This is a very complex issue. It impacts agricultural sector, levels of income.”

Senior advocate Vijay Hansaria suggested that existing independent statutory bodies can be asked to look into fiscal deficit and give suggestions. Saying that fiscal discipline is required, he stressed the need to have in place a committee to take a call on the issue.

Freebies and welfare schemes are not the same, said senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, who argued for the Aam Aadmi Party, which governs Delhi. “The word freebies is used in a very wrong manner,” he said.

Mehta, responding to Singhvi’s argument, said elections are practically being fought on the promise of freebies. “If freebies are considered to be for the welfare of the people, it’ll lead to a disaster,” he said.

Mehta said it will be difficult finding beneficiaries of freebies who can be members of the committee the court has suggested setting up. He instead suggested representatives from the political parties, the Niti Aayog, the civil service, the central bank, and other sectors.

Senior advocate and politician Kapil Sibal, whose opinion the court has sought in the matter, said the impact regulating freebies will have on different sectors, especially agriculture, has to be considered.