Will or can the Election Commission put off the Union Budget?

Will the country or Government come to a standstill if the Union Budget is deferred till mid-March? Even as final word is awaited from the EC and Supreme Court, the Govt goes ahead with the exercise

Photo courtesy: twitter.com/FinMinIndia
Photo courtesy: twitter.com/FinMinIndia

NH Political Bureau

Around 100 officials of the Finance Ministry involved in printing of budget documents have been confined to the North Block since January 19, 2017 when Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley signalled the beginning of the process with the ritual ‘Halwa ceremony’.

The question that is on everyone’s lips is whether these officials will remain in confinement if the Election Commission directs the Government to put off the Union Budget.

While the ceremony indicated that the Government is all set to present the Union Budget on February 1, three days before polling takes place in Punjab and Goa, neither the Election Commission of India nor the Supreme Court have yet given a decision.

The Supreme Court bench hearing a PIL seeking postponement of the Union Budget had wondered “What’s the big deal if Budget is presented on February 1 instead of March 1? Which law is violated by this?” A similar reply was given by the Government to the Election Commission, which has asked why the Union Budget, presented traditionally on the last day of February, could not be delayed till the middle of March.

With opposition parties petitioning the EC for ordering deferment of the budget, the Commission also asked the Government to explain the process in 2012 when the NDA and the BJP, then in opposition, had opposed presentation of the Union Budget in the middle of state elections, and when the then Union Government had settled for a Vote-on-Account and postponed the presentation till after the state elections.

The law and the spirit of the law

Experts say the Election Commission cannot stop the Government from presenting the Budget. “When the Budget would be presented is entirely the Government’s discretion. However, it is within the Election Commission’s powers to ask the Centre not to mention any projects specific to the five states,” says former Lok Sabha Secretary General PDT Achary.

But they also point out that Article 324 of the Constitution gives enormous powers to the EC on conducting elections. The EC could take a decision in the best interests of conducting free and fair polls, and set a precedent if necessary.

The government's contention, though, has been that the Union Budget is just an annual constitutional exercise covering the entire country and not just a few states. By advancing the Budget, which is usually announced on the last working day of February, the Centre apparently wants to finish the Budget process by March 31 or April 15.

However, former Chief Election Commissioner SY Quraishi doesn't buy that argument. In an interview to The Indian Express, he points out how in a similar situation in 2012 when the Election Commission was worried about possible populist announcements in the Budget, the Manmohan Singh Government had, on its own, postponed the Budget by a fortnight to March 16.

Can't the Modi Government too follow this precedent? The Model Code of Conduct—that comes into play the moment the elections are announced—prohibits announcements, grants or promises which may have the "effect of influencing the voters in favour of the party in power”. "The budget announcement in my view does fall in this category of announcements," Quraishi told The Indian Express.

Researcher, activist and scholar Yogendra Yadav also chipped in to ask whether announcements on agriculture pricing or loan waivers for farmers in the Union Budget would not influence voters. Nothing would stop the Government from announcing a large number of new railway lines for Uttar Pradesh, it is argued.

Talks with a cross-section of experts, commentators and politicians highlighted the following concerns:

  • It would be naive to think that the Centre had advanced the Budget presentation date to February 1 without an eye on the upcoming state polls, especially with BJP having much at stake in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh
  • It would also be a stretch to believe that the Modi government will not try to score brownie points with an eye to the voters
  • Even if the government undertakes not to announce anything special for the five states that go to polls, nothing can be done if it does choose to announce schemes specific to poll-bound states.

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