By Ronojoy Mazumdar
On February 1st, the Finance Minister of India, Arun Jaitley, will present the Union Budget. The budget has the power to influence all walks of life, from the interest rates on home loans, to the level of funding for government schools. However residents of Punjab, UP, Goa, Manipur, and Uttarakhand may be less interested in this budget than usual. That is because the Finance Minister will not be allowed to include any schemes which specifically target these five states, in which State Assembly polls are going to be held. Additionally, this budget won’t be permitted to highlight the achievements of the Union government in any of those five states.
[su_pullquote]Additionally, this budget won’t be permitted to highlight the achievements of the Union government in any of those five states.[/su_pullquote]
The Model Code of Conduct by the Election Commission stipulates that an incumbent government shall not announce any new financial grants or schemes once the election notice has been given. This rule is effective in limiting the ability of incumbent governments at all levels from abusing their position to maximise positive exposure for the ruling party in the run-up to an election.
To bolster its argument, the Election Commission has pointed out that in the past, when State Assembly budget sessions have clashed with a general election, state governments have refrained from passing a full budget and instead only passed a vote-on-account, which is only a statement of the government’s expenditure. This has been done in anticipation of the potential new policies and changes in the allocation of resources that a new government at the Centre may bring in. But while it makes sense for a State government to hold off on passing a full budget during a time of General Election, the reverse does not apply. Policies implemented by governments at the State level will not have an immediate and significant impact on the Union Budget, whereas fiscal decisions taken at the Central level often have repercussions for the States.
Is the Election Commission’s reasoning valid?
The Election Commission of India is responsible for ensuring that elections are held in a fair manner. It has done commendable work over the years to censor the use of hate speech, to fight the influence of big money in politics, and to generally strengthen the integrity of India’s electoral processes. Yet on this occasion, its reasoning appears flawed.
The Election Commission has argued that the Union Budget should not include specific references to the five states headed for elections, in order to not influence voters, so that there will be a level playing field for all parties.
However, they are depriving voters of information that may be highly relevant to their electoral decision-making.
[su_pullquote]Asking the Central government to omit states undergoing election from its budget will not alleviate the issue of Center-State relations.[/su_pullquote]
For example, the Central government has been quite pro-active in airlifting essential commodities such as fuel into blockade-hit Imphal. The concern displayed by the BJP government is relevant information for Manipuri voters heading to polls in March. Voters must evaluate their choices and ideally, take an informed decision weighing up a multitude of factors. Do they expect their state to do better if the party in charge is the same as the one in power at the Center? Asking the Central government to omit states undergoing election from its budget will not alleviate the issue of Center-State relations.It’s showtime | Photo Courtesy: India Today
Lastly, it is worth remembering that the Model Code of Conduct has very limited statutory force. It is essentially a guide for how political parties should behave, and most of its precepts are not actually legally binding. Politicians who have been booked for violating the Model Code of Conduct have very rarely faced actual legal repercussions The damage, is done more through the public perception of wrongdoing. In order to maintain its force as a document that effectively regulates Indian elections, the Election Commission should stick to citing violations of the Code in cases where the moral argument against the actions of a politician or a political party is strong. On this occasion, the argument on which its position has been based appears to be rather tenuous.
Ronojoy Mazumdar is a tax associate with EY Global in Bangalore.
Featured Image Courtesy: OhMyIndia
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