Declaration of the schedule of Assembly elections 2017 in five states on Wednesday triggered a controversy over the scheduled presentation of Union Budget 2017 on February 1. Opposition parties, including BJP’s Maharashtra ally Shiv Sena, have alleged that Bharatiya Janata Party would get an undue advantage by announcing the Union budget just before the elections starting February 4 in Goa and Punjab. Other three states going to the polls are Uttar Pradesh, Manipur and Uttarakhand.
The opposition parties also claim that announcing Budget before the elections would amount to the violation of the Model Code of Conduct (MCC) that came into effect on Wednesday. To support their claim, they have cited the example of 2012 Assembly elections when the Budget was announced after the polls. On its part, the government says that Budget presentation is a Constitutional exercise for the benefit of the entire country, not just a few states. Modi government had last year decided to advance Union Budget presentation from the last day of February to make the early distribution of Central funds for development works possible.
“The actual expenditure must start from April rather than half the year being lost and starting after the monsoons. That is the whole object of this exercise and we stand by that exercise,” PTI quoted Finance Minister Arun Jaitley as saying on Wednesday. Jaitley also rubbished the suggestion to postpone the Budget presentation to March, saying it is not a tradition to be followed every time.
Arguing that Budget is a Constitutional necessity, Jaitley said, “Interim budget is presented just before Lok Sabha elections. No one has stopped that. Even in 2014, interim budget was presented some days before the General Elections.”
Chairing a Pre-Budget consultative meeting with Financial Sector Regulators in Delhi, Jan 5, 2017. pic.twitter.com/HBVEpx12xY
— Arun Jaitley (@arunjaitley) January 5, 2017
One of the biggest fears of opposition parties is that the government could announce sops to influence voters for the benefit of BJP. However, the party can do so, and do it more extravagantly, during the election campaign. Secondly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already announced a number of schemes for the poor and women during his New Year’s Eve address to the nation on December 31. Several opposition parties had criticised the speech as a “pre-Budget” speech and wondered what Jaitley would be left with to announce on February 1. Thirdly, to believe that sops could influence voters is like underestimating the intelligence of common citizens of the country.
The argument that Budget announcement on February 1 would amount to the violation of the MCC doesn’t hold much water as the nature of MCC is voluntary. MCC is a set of guidelines issued to parties, candidates and the government by the ECI to ensure free and fair elections. The guidelines are not governed by any law. In case candidates are involved in major violations, like inciting communal violence, they are dealt as per the provisions of the Indian Penal Code. There is a very thin line between what the candidates are allowed or not allowed during the election campaign and the EC or State Electoral Officer often act as arbiters in case of a controversy.
A few more facts here would further clarify why opposition’s argument is not much sustainable, until the EC decides otherwise.
a) The Budget is always allowed to be presented on schedule unless it clashes with Lok Sabha elections. In that case a vote on account is taken.
b) In case of Budget announcement before state Assembly election, the ECI expects from the government not to announce anything aimed at voters of the state. For instance, ECI allowed the government to announce a new MSP for raw jute for 2013-14 ahead of Assembly election in Karnataka as the state didn’t have any share in jute production, according to IE.
c) The Election Commission always keeps a watch on whether an announcement is aimed at influencing voters and take necessary action. For instance, then HRD minister Arjun Singh had to face the wrath of the EC when he announced 27% reservation for OBCs in Centrally-funded institutions. The MCC for Assembly elections in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Pondicherry was in force then. The government later had to clarify that no such decision was taken.
Arguments apart, several experts have opined that there is nothing wrong in announcing the Budget before the Assembly elections. Former Attorney General Soli Sorabjee told CNBC-TV 18 on Wednesday that Union Budget may not be deferred as announcements would not be state-specific. “There is nothing wrong in announcing national sops in Budget,” he said.
Former Chief Election Commissioner S Y Quraishi told IE that ECI checks if an announcement is aimed at luring voters and rejects if it can wait. “When the EC feels such announcements are aimed at luring the voters and can wait, it rejects the government’s request. This has happened,” he said.
Another former CEC N Gopalaswami told News18 that the Budget cannot be deferred as it is meant for the entire country. However, the only way to avoid a controversy like the present is to conduct Assembly and National elections simultaneously after every five years, he said.