Advancing the Budget presentation could give the BJP an unfair advantage in the upcoming state elections. By failing to defer it until after the polls, the party is unwilling to follow the high principles expected in a bipartisan polity.
The Narendra Modi government appears to have decided to advance the presentation of the annual Budget from the traditional last day of February to the first of the month, as part of a ‘heads we win, tails you lose’ strategy. On Wednesday, even as the chief election commissioner Nasim Zaidi was announcing the poll schedule for five states, news anchors began asking analysts and opposition leaders whether presenting the budget on the eve of polls would violate the model code of conduct.
Reporters at the Election Commission (EC) press conference were directed to specifically ask if the poll panel intended to examine the legality of the budget being presented just three days before 16.8 crore voters in 690 assembly constituencies were to cast their votes. Zaidi replied that the poll body had “received one representation sent by some political parties. This representation is with regards to presentation of the budget. The commission is examining this representation and in due course of time will take a call on this.” At their daily press briefings, almost all major opposition parties too demanded that the budget should be postponed till after March 8, the last day of the polls.
On Thursday, several opposition leaders, including ones from Congress, Trinamool Congress, Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party, Janata Dal (United) and Rashtriya Janata Dal, met Zaidi and presented their arguments for deferring the Budget which, they claimed, would give the government an unfair advantage ahead of the state elections.
They also complained to President Pranab Mukherjee that the presentation of the Budget just three days before the polls would provide the government with an opportunity to skew public opinion in favour of the BJP.
In 2012, when elections were last conducted in Uttar Pradesh and the other four states featuring in upcoming round of assembly polls, Mukherjee, the then finance minister in the UP government, had delayed the presentation of the Budget to March 16 until after the polling was done. The decision was taken before the opposition parties could make such a demand, indicating that while the UPA had resorted to taking the ethical decision suo motu, the Modi regime is unwilling to follow the high principles that are expected in a bipartisan polity.
By arguing that there is no need to defer the Budget, the BJP has reacted predictably. Its leaders dismissed the demand saying that the tradition must be followed every time. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has drawn attention to the government’s raison d’être for advancing the Budget by several weeks. He contends that 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.”
This argument goes against the long consensus on the tradition of governments presenting a vote-on-account or interim Budget whenever parliamentary polls were due within a couple of months of the Budget. Jaitley’s viewpoint is indicative of the government’s growing rigidity on several matters and ignores the fact that the Budget is not just an economic exercise but is also political in nature.
The government was aware that polls in states that comprise a significant part of India were due in the first quarter of the year. Despite this, it went ahead with the decision and has cited section 123(2)(b) of the Representation of the People Act, which governs elections to argue that it is perfectly entitled to go ahead with its Budget schedule. This, however, will not be the end of the controversy since if the election commissioner and the president do not intervene, opposition parties have the option of moving the apex court. Why then has the government risked an event as significant as the presentation of the annual Budget?
The game plan of the BJP is revealed in a statement made by one of its spokespersons. G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, although not politically significant in the party hierarchy, is part of the brigade which is briefed by senior ministers every day. He declared that “the government cannot come to a standstill because some states are going to polls. Every year, some election or the other takes place.”
Clearly, the ire of the BJP is against different states going to the hustings at different times. For more than a year, Modi has waged a major broadside asynchronous election. There are also reports that the prime minister is likely to raise the issue of simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and state assemblies at an all-party meeting before the Budget session.
Clearly, if Modi is unable to push the Budget through as planned on February 1, the Centre will utilise the development to buttress its case on another central slogan of Modi – One Nation One Poll. Since he began the campaign for simultaneously conducting the Lok Sabha and state polls, Modi has stressed that “government’s work comes to a standstill during elections.” The prime minister has in fact gone beyond just parliamentary and assembly polls, and in March, while addressing BJP national office-bearers and state unit chiefs, he advocated that the elections to panchayat bodies must also be held concurrently.
Simultaneous polls go against the idea of political federalism and Modi is motivated by the desire to ride a wave. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, conducted a simulation of the 2014 verdict and projected that had the elections in state assemblies been conducted alongside Lok Sabha polls, the BJP, on its own or with the NDA partners, would have romped to power in several states where the Congress took power.
Federal polities like India cannot be straitjacketed. Coalitions are not bad for governance despite the pro-BJP middle-class’ abhorrence for it. Fragmentation of the polity mirrors rising aspirations of social groups which otherwise do not secure political representation. Frequent elections are barometers of public sentiment. Simultaneous elections will force legislature to continue for the entire tenure despite parties being able to work together on matters of principles.
Democracies will slowly become less-representational in the event of Modi and the BJP having their way on holding elections at every level just once every five years. The government has to frame its timelines and weave policies according to public sentiment. It cannot be the other way where the people across the nation are told that they can make a choice only once every five years. In that case, governments will run amuck and India shall no longer remain a democracy.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.