‘Budget before polls will influence voters’

Former chief election commission S Y Quraishi tells Sahil Makkar it would be wiser to defer the Union Budget, as its presentation on February 1 may influence the outcome of the Assembly elections ahead.

How right is it to have the general Budget just three days before the Punjab and Goa elections?

It has become a point of debate. Earlier, the Budget used to be on February 28 and this practice had continued for over 70 years. The Election Commission (EC) had got accustomed to this practice and it scheduled the elections accordingly. But the government of India’s intention of advancing the Budget has certainly raised questions like why it wants to change the system which has worked well for the past 70 years? One can’t fault the people looking for a motive behind the decision.

Do Budget announcements make a difference to people’s attitude?

Any Budget announcement that creates a feel-good factor certainly influences voters. That is why the model code of conduct specifically says that no authority can announce any new scheme, sop or financial concession in any form. Since the government is an “authority” and the Budget a “form”, it certainly comes within the purview of the model code. It can influence voters. Sometimes people say that such announcements don’t have any significant impact, but that’s wrong, especially when the elections are decided by a close margin.

Does it mean that political parties are right in their demand to postpone the Budget?

Certainly, they have a point and I am sure the government will take this into account. The government is sensitive to the model code of conduct. The ruling party can’t ignore this, as they opposed such a move when they were in the Opposition. All they need to do is recall their earlier stand and the right decision will follow.

What should the EC do in this situation?

The EC can advise the government and point out the letter – besides the spirit – of the model code of conduct.

How will the EC arrive at such a decision?

The EC will hear both the sides, take past precedents into account, see the Supreme Court judgments, apply common sense and principle of equity and letter and spirit of the code. The EC will arrive at a decision soon. Election commissioners are wise and experienced people and the commission has always upheld the highest traditions of fairness, which is why it enjoys the credibility and the respect of the nation that it does. There is also a possibility that the EC may ask the government to hold the Budget on a vote of account, as it has happened several times in the past.

The government should also not make it a prestige issue. Though I am not a student of economics, I don’t see any impact on the economy if the Budget doesn’t take place on February 1. The financial year begins on April 1 anyway. However, it is fine if the government fleshes out whatever announcement the prime minister had made before the announcement of polls into the Budget. The model code of conduct doesn’t debar old announcements. It is also possible that the government is not planning any populist announcement that will attract the attention of the model code.

In such a situation can the EC ask the Union government to show its Budget to them?

No. The Budget is a secret document. The EC, however, is concerned about the decisions of the government that may have the effect of luring voters. Usually, what happens during the model code of conduct is that the Cabinet passes some schemes and populist measures and this gets leaked to the media. Budget 2017 India Though the EC stays such decisions, the damage is done. We had to summon the cabinet secretary two or three times in the past. It was decided that if any scheme is contemplated, which can be interpreted as being populist, it must get clearance from the EC before it is brought to the Cabinet.

The model code of conduct is not binding on the legislature as well as the judiciary?

It may not be binding, yet it has great moral authority. Political leaders are always wary of violating the model code of conduct and don’t want to get on the wrong side of the EC. The code may not be a law, but the Supreme Court has held several times that it must be enforced strictly.

What if the government chooses to ignore the advice of the EC?

There will be a lot of hue and cry. There will be uproar in the media, which will also spread to the voters. One should not forget that the model code of conduct is a gift to the country by the political leadership itself. It will be not a good idea if the current generation of leadership weakens what was given by the older generation.

What could be the reason for the EC to delay the announcement of elections?

I am not aware of the circumstances before the EC. This could be due to demonetisation, but I am just thinking aloud. In my time, it was announced on December 24 and we wanted to finish the exercise before February 27 to stay clear of the Budget. Fortunately, the then government decided to postpone the Budget to March 16 and it gave us room for holding some phases in March by suitable deployment of security forces. But this time the elections in five states are in the middle of the mode code of conduct.

If deployment of paramilitary forces is such a concern, then how can we simultaneously hold the Lok Sabha elections and the state Assembly elections?

Simultaneous elections have a different connotation. Once a polling booth is secured, the voter voting for one election or two is the same thing. On the contrary, simultaneous elections will be a good thing because the massive deployment of paramilitary forces conducted every year and which has security implications for the borders and the extremist areas will be avoided. But simultaneous elections may be difficult from the legal and constitutional angle. National consensus will be necessary.

What would be the benefits of simultaneous elections?

Huge recurring costs would be avoided. In 2014, one estimate was that political parties spent Rs 30,000 crore and the EC Rs 4,500 crore. Second, normal governance activities come to a standstill due to the prolonged imposition of the model code of conduct. These were the two reasons given by the prime minister. I would add two more.

Once we are in election mode, communal and caste polarisation gets into a high pitch. This kind of polarising politics becomes perpetual when we are in perpetual election mode. The election has become the root cause of all corruption. It’s perpetuation is dangerous. But whether it is feasible to hold simultaneous elections needs to be thoroughly debated, as a political consensus is required. The prime minister has said the EC should invite all political parties, but in my view this meeting should be held by the prime minister himself. This is because the EC has not been able to get the top leadership from the political parties for discussion on any important issue. The parties are usually represented by the second or third-rung leadership. The top leadership only comes to the EC when it feels it has been wronged by the ruling party.

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‘Budget before polls will influence voters’

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