The mark of a mature democracy, they say, is political consciousness of the common man. Looking at the large scale corruption that politics has festered in the country, we may be disinclined to look upon India as a mature democracy, but the fact remains undeniable that every man and woman (and often even children) in the country has a strong political opinion.
Take your local chai wala, for instance (no pun intended). Notice how each morning, after a morning walk, your neighbours tend to congregate at his shop, pretend to skim the newspaper and discuss the latest political developments in the country? With the vendor adding his own two cents of wisdom?
Even if you’re not much of a morning person you can’t miss the political views of your domestic helper, the cabbie, the milkman, your colleagues, or even your kid’s school teacher. And slowly but surely these conversations are moving away from their take on demonetisation to the upcoming assembly election in some of the most important states in the country.
It is precisely this common man’s favour that the political parties in the fray are trying to gain by announcing schemes and SOPs whenever possible.
Budget Before Polls
The most important political event of 2017 is the state legislative assembly elections to be held in the states of Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Among these seven states, five of them – Goa, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand are set to go to polls in February and March.
February 2017 is not only important because of the upcoming elections but also because of the fact that the government has decided to do away with a nine-decade old tradition and merged the union budget and railway budget. The government has also decided to move up the date of budget presentation making it customary to present the combined budget on February 1 each year.
BJP’s rival parties in these states are worried that this might work out in favour of the ruling party (at centre). By offering freebies and schemes in states that are coming up for polls, BJP is likely to influence the electorate in these states, they fear.
Supreme Court Ruling
Earlier this week, the Union Minister and BJP Spokesperson Venkaiah Naidu announced confidently that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is likely to win the elections in all the five states. Meanwhile, all the other parties had filed a petition at the Supreme Court seeking a postponement of the budget announcement, fearing that it would be a major factor influencing the decision of the voters in the upcoming elections.
The petition had been filed as a PIL by ML Sharma, a lawyer. “They present schemes like these in the budget to control the minds of the citizens. These schemes declared during election time are against the Model Code of Conduct”, he had argued.
The petition came up before a bench comprising Chief Justice J S Khehar, Justice N V Ramana and Justice D Y Chandrachud. The Chief Justice ruled that there was no evidence to support the claim that the voters in the election states would be influenced by the budgetary announcements and refused to grant the requested postponement.
The bench further said that the division of jurisdiction between the State and the Centre in the constitution was clear and that the presentation of the budget does not depend on the state Legislative Assembly polls “which keep happening”.
“Your argument is absurd. This way you will say the party in power at Centre should not contest state polls”, said the bench to Sharma. The bench had repeatedly asked Sharma to produce concrete evidence linking the Budget to influencing the election results in the states.
Election Commission Intervenes
The Congress and other opposition parties had also approached the Election Commission with their worries. Announcement of SOPs in the budget would sway the electorate, they said. Just a few hours after the Supreme Court pronounced its judgement, the Election Commission came out with its own rules for the BJP and the Union Budget. While giving the central government the go ahead for presenting the Union Budget on February 1, 2017, the Election Commission also put forth a number of restrictions.
The Government is to announce no schemes related to the states that are bound for polls in February and March. Nor will the government underline any of the achievements and successes of its schemes in these states by way of the budget speech, the EC ruled.
The EC’s statement reads as follows – “The Commission hereby directs that in the interest of free and fair elections and in order to maintain level playing field during elections, no state-specific schemes shall be announced in the national budget which may have the effect of influencing the electors of the five poll-going states in favour of the ruling party. It may be ensured that in the Budget speech, the government’s achievements in respect of the said five states will also not be highlighted in any manner“.
While the Supreme Court’s ruling might have brought cheer to the BJP camp, the EC has put things in perspective and guarded the interests of free and fair polls.
Why Was The Budget Date Moved?
The BJP-dominated central government had announced the merging of the railway and union budgets in September 2016. It is at this time that the government also announced that it intended to move the date of budget presentation (usually on February 28) to February 1. This is to allow the member of parliaments to get done with the legislative part of the finances before April 1, which is the start of the next fiscal year.
The opposition parties want the budget to be announced after March 11 – the date when the state assembly poll results will be declared in all the five states.