Every year the Union Budget is presented on the final day of February. This year, it has been brought forward to February 1. As it happens, this is only three days prior to elections in Punjab and Goa and just 10 days before the first vote is punched in Uttar Pradesh. Potentially, this advancing of the budget could jeopardize the election process, vitiate its fairness and set a dangerous precedent.
The Model Code of Conduct has already been announced by the Election Commission of India and the process for elections in five states - Punjab, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Manipur - is underway. The code is a set of norms for political parties and candidates to abide by. These regulate general conduct, speeches, polling day events, polling booths, and election manifestos. They aim to ensure free and fair elections - the cornerstone of democracy. The code specifies that no government can take any action that may be aimed at influencing voters in favour of an individual political party. The Union Budget is usually the occasion to announce new schemes, welfare programmes, tax and fiscal benefits and so on. This year, with the merger of the railway and general budgets, the Finance Minister will also have the welfare mechanism of Indian Railways available to him to reach out to voters, particularly in the heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.
Tax cuts, giveaways and subsidies are expected in this budget because of the crippling impact of demonetization. Populist measures can be anticipated as the BJP attempts to redress the damage of November 8. Given all this, February 1 and the Union Budget offer the BJP an unfair advantage in the run-up to elections.
Elections and the Union Budget have coincided earlier. In 2012, when the coming set of state elections previously took place, there was the risk of the then government, UPA II, gaining an advantage and the Congress benefiting. What happened then was that the budget was postponed. It was presented on March 16 after the votes had been counted. In 2007, assembly elections took place between February 8 and 23. The Railway Budget and Union Budget followed soon after.
The BJP-led government argues the Model Code does not stop it from making announcements during state assembly elections. This is not quite the case. In May 2006, the Election Commission had severely reprimanded Arjun Singh, then HRD minister, for announcing a 27 per cent quota for OBCs in central government-funded educational institutions. This had happened when the Model Code of Conduct was in force in Assam, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Pondicherry.
These norms have not been codified at the whim of any particular government, but have evolved with the consensus of political parties across the country. They reflect the sensibility of political protocol and the decency of democracy. Political parties, including the incumbent BJP, have consented to abide by these principles in not just letter but spirit. 16 political parties have objected to the presentation of the budget on February 1. Their view must count.
The BJP-led government has so far shown little regard for such conventions and traditions. The Prime Minister himself has been absent from parliamentary debates, whether on demonetization, foreign policy or religious tension. The government has bulldozed legislation through parliament and reduced the Lok Sabha to a rubber stamp. It is only the Rajya Sabha that has managed to stave off the government's brutal and brutalizing methods.
That is what makes the presentation of a Union Budget in the midst of an election schedule - that too one in Uttar Pradesh, India's politically most important state by numbers - so much more dangerous. What we in the Trinamool Congress fear is an outrageous and flagrant attempt to bribe voters, whitewash the sins and failures of demonetization, and gain an unfair advantage over other parties. Trinamool was founded in 1998 and recognized as a national party in 2016. We are more alive to the nurturing of democracy and the ethical conduct of elections than many other national parties that have often played ducks and drakes with the fine traditions of political conduct.
By bringing forward the Union Budget by one month, a move clearly calculated to influence the Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa elections - though various other reasons are being cited - the BJP is not doing India a favour. I hope better sense prevails. There is still time. Elections can come and go, be won or lost. An ethical breach, once made, can never be repaired.Derek O'Brien is leader, parliamentary party Trinamool Congress (RS), and Chief National spokesperson of the party.Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.