Like festivals, elections are aplenty in India. In fact, the political class appears to be in a perpetual state of electoral preparedness with polls becoming an annual feature in some corner of the country or the other. A political row has now erupted over the propriety of presenting the Union Budget on February 1, just three days before voting kicks off in five States including the most populous and crucial State of Uttar Pradesh. Is it justified to postpone a constitutional obligation like presentation of Union Budget citing model code of conduct applicable to the State Assembly elections? While the ball is in the Election Commission’s court to decide on the question, the political parties are vertically divided on the issue. The ruling party can use the budgetary exercise to lure voters by promising sops and new welfare schemes. The opposition’s argument that it provides undue advantage to the BJP ahead of key round of elections cannot be wished away. A delegation of opposition leaders from the Congress, BSP, NCP, RJD, JD (U) and Left parties has met the Chief Election Commissioner and sought postponement of the Budget till March 8 when the polling ends. Constitutional experts and former Election Commission officials have opined that the State elections, however important they may be politically, should not be allowed to hold up a central Budget as it pertains to the entire country.
A Budget is a national-level exercise that cannot be delayed on account of State elections, it is argued. On its part, the Supreme Court has refused to join the issue and declined to hear a PIL seeking postponement of annual Budget. With both sides of the political divide citing precedents to buttress their respective points, it is now for the poll panel to sympathetically examine the opposition contention that advancing the Budget schedule could undermine the process of free and fair elections. A reasonable solution to this contentious issue could be to ensure that the government refrains from offering sops that are specific to the poll-bound States. The decision to advance the Budget presentation was taken in September last year to help the departments and individuals plan their spending and taxes better and also to ensure that new tax proposals can come into effect earlier than in the past. This will provide ample time for Parliament to pass the Finance Bill by March, so that expenditure can begin right from day one of the new fiscal year. Moreover, post-demonetisation, people are eagerly waiting for the government to announce some measures to soften the painful impact of note ban. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has already hinted at lowering personal income and corporate taxes and other sops.