Timing of the Budget
There are certain codes of governce for which no rules or laws are required, but as a measure of safety, all societies are inclined to avoid any risks, and therefore, to legislate even on such matters. One of these codes relates to the timing of the Union Budget. Plain common sense should be enough to tell us that the Union Budget should not precede general elections in any part of the country since the benefits accruing to the people from the Budget announcements would grant a tremendous advantage to the ruling party at the elections. Unfortutely, this is precisely what is about to happen next month. On Tuesday, the Cabinet committee on parliamentary affairs recommended that the Union Budget be tabled on February 1, 2017, four weeks earlier than usual and in line with an in-principle decision taken by the Centre in September 2016. A day later, on Wednesday, the Election Commission of India announced the dates for Assembly elections in five States, including Uttar Pradesh. Assembly elections are due to be held in Goa and Punjab on February 4, in Uttarakhand on February 15 and in Manipur on March 4 and 8. In Uttar Pradesh, the Assembly elections are due to be held on seven days: on February 11, 15, 19, 23 and 27 and on March 4 and 8. In other words, the tabling of the Union Budget in Parliament is due to take place just three days ahead of the Assembly elections of Goa and Punjab, 10 days before the first phase of elections in Uttar Pradesh, 14 days before the elections of Uttarakhand and a little more than a month before the Manipur elections and the last two phases of the elections in Uttar Pradesh. Considering that the Union Budget is due to be tabled just three days before the Goa and Punjab elections and a few days before the Uttarakhand and the first three phases of the Uttar Pradesh elections, there is every reason for other political parties to worry about the advantages that the ruling BJP is likely derive from the Budget even if it has just a few benefits for the common people.
This is the kind of thing that should never happen. No mature democracy needs any laws to ensure that the ruling political party does not derive undue benefits in any general election merely by being in a position to plan the timing of the Budget in a way so that it is in a position to announce major benefits for the electorate just before elections. Such timings for the Budget are generally avoided. In the present case, we have the Budget being advanced by about four weeks from the usual date obviously to derive benefits from the elections. We are, therefore, concerned with a strategy that a political party in power is in a position to unleash but should not do so because it makes the election unfair at least to a limited extent. The government may derive satisfaction from the fact that the letter of the law in the Representation of the People Act does not prevent the government from presenting the Budget so close before general elections and that it is on safe ground. Section 132 2(b) of the Act says: “A declaration of public policy, or a promise of public action, or the mere exercise of a legal right without intent to interfere with an electoral right, shall not be deemed to be interference...” Quite obviously, the Representation of the People Act is not specific about what constitutes interference of electoral right, and therefore needs to be amended and fine-tuned. But while this task is undertaken and completed, the government would do well to heed the demand by Opposition parties that the presentation of the Union Budget should be deferred till after March 8, since its presentation before the Assembly elections would give an unfair advantage to the BJP and its allies.