Early Budget unfair, unethical

The code of conduct for elections has come into force in five states where Assembly elections are to be held in February and March. The Election Commission of India (ECI) has announced the poll schedule which will start on February 4. Parliament’s Budget session is set to start on January 31, and the Union Budget is scheduled to be presented on February 1, just three days before the voting starts. The Opposition has approached the ECI seeking a postponement of the presentation of the Budget. The opposition’s argument is that the government might use the Budget to offer sops to the voters and it will have an impact because the proposals will be made just before the elections. The argument carries weight. Budgets are not just financial documents. They are political statements, too. It will be wrong and unethical for a government to use its power to present the budget to influence the voters at a sensitive time before the elections. It will mean denial of a level playing field for the opposition, which is a pre-condition for free and fair elections. 

It is very likely that this year’s Budget will be populist and will offer many sops and reliefs to voters to ease the pain of demonetisation. It is disingenuous to argue that the Budget proposals are for the entire nation and there will not be any proposals specifically aimed at the five states. The voters in the poll-bound states will also benefit from the sops. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have hinted at a reduction in taxes. It is also not right to say that every year some election or the other takes place in the country, and that last year, the Budget was presented before the elections. There is a more relevant precedent of the UPA government postponing its Budget presentation to March 16 when Assembly elections were to be held in the same states in 2012.

This year, the Budget is being presented one month earlier than usual and, therefore, its postponement to the first week of March will not do any harm. It will show that the government is fair and reasonable and sensitive to the opposition’s views. It is wrong for the government or any party to have an unfair advantage in elections. Unfortunately, Jaitley has said that “there is no requirement for a delay.” The ECI has sought the government’s views on the matter. The commission, which takes care to enfo­rce the model code of conduct even when minor issues are involved, should ensure that the government
does not violate the code on a major matter like this.
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