Budget just before elections deceitful, unethical

When there is decline in democratic standards across the globe, Indian political scenario is leading with deep and distressing decline.

The Narendra Modi government’s well-planned and strategic decision to advance the Union budget in the light of assembly elections in five states is the newest example of this loss of morality.

The Constitution contemplates free and fair election. Justice H R Khanna an election case in 1975 observed that democracy is a basic feature of the Constitution and includes free and fair elections. This sentiment has also been echoed in many other decisions of the Supreme Court. 

In Mohinder Singh Gill vs The Chief Election Commissioner, while dealing with a contention that Election Commission has no power to cancel the election and direct repoll, referred to the pervasive philosophy of democratic elections which Sir Winston Churchill invigorated: “At the bottom of all tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into a little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper - no amount of rhetoric of voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.”

If we may add, the little large Indian shall not be hijacked from the course of free and fair elections by mob muscle methods or subtle perversion of discretion by men ‘dressed in little, brief authority’. For ‘be you ever so high, the law is above you.’  The moral may be stated with telling terseness in the words of William Pit: ‘Where laws end, tyranny begins’.

Embracing both these mandates and emphasising their combined effect is the elemental law and politics of power best expressed by Benjamin Disraeli: “I repeat...that all power is a trust that we are accountable for its exercise — that, from the people and for the people, all springs, and all must exist.”

Constitution vests comprehensive powers and responsibilities of superintendence, direction and control of the conduct of elections in the Election Commission. This responsibility covers powers, duties and functions of many sorts, administrative or other depending on the circumstances guaranteeing the limpidness of electoral process. To accomplish this constitutional objective, the EC can draw upon all incidental and ancillary powers.

The Supreme Court in Union of India vs Association of Democratic Reforms held, “Under Article 324, the Commission can issue suitable directions to maintain the purity of election and to bring transparency in the process of election. The phrase ‘Superintendence and control over the conduct of elections’ is held to be of very wide amplitude which would include power to make all necessary provisions for conducting free and fair elections.

It further said: “The transition of Election Commission from a nominal body to an effective autonomous institution has been realised by construing liberally these provisions. The Election Commission is subject to only two limitations.

Firstly, the constitution and secondly; a law made by the legislature. But where such law is silent, Article 324 is a reservoir of power to act for the avowed purpose of, not divorced from, pushing forward a free and fair election with expedition.”

It is difficult for any constitution, howsoever immense it is, to list all the contingencies and vest power accordingly to deal with it. The analogy that the constitution does not expressly prohibit to present the budget before elections cannot be stretched to the extent that power lies inherently within the domain of the executive, can no longer be justified.

The Supreme Court of United States in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co vs Sawyer has rejected this analogy that the executive to be capable, as a "steward" of the people, of exerting all power save that which is specifically prohibited by the Constitution or the law. 

The budget is generally presented on the last working day of February but the Centre’s planning to advance it just before election campaigns in five states were getting into full gear appears to be deceitful. It may be argued historically that these kind of political manoeuvres have not worked for governments in powers.

Manmohan Singh’s budget (1996), Jaswant Singh’s feel good and ‘India shining’ budget (2003), Chidambaram’s ‘dream’ budget (1997) could not save their governments, but can this be cited as precedent to give government free hand?

Pre-emptive action

In the past; too Union budget was presented just before state elections but not on such a large scale. Advancing budget of Modi government would be indispensably unethical for quite a few reasons: firstly; it is clearly a pre-emptive action considering elections in five states which are very critical for the BJP government for conquering majority in the Upper House and the approaching Presidential election.
 
Secondly; this budget is shadowed by government’s demonetisation drive that suddenly slowed down the pace of the economy and thirdly; BJP portrays Modi in all the states’ elections and hence possibly this might affect the purity of elections. This disturbs the parity of power between political parties contesting elections and the party in the government and encourage more corrupt practices.  

Is it not the duty of the EC to devise mechanisms to prevent these unethical practices? Why the EC is not mooting the idea of holding general, state and panchayat elections together although ruling party has shown its inclination towards this. The Commission is not only to conduct elections but also to prepare the roadmap for the future reforms. Regrettably, our EC is once again going back to pre-T N Seshan phase. Political parties and politicians are unswervingly making mockery of the election code of conduct.

The image of the EC is now seen as a toothless tiger. A vibrant Commission is desired to ensure that basic structure of constitution is not eroded by declining politics.

The attitude of the government towards developing decent conventions towards a vibrant democracy is not only playing mayhem with the democratic values but threatening to spoil the expectations of people but dimness of the EC is somewhat more frightening.  

(The writer is Deputy Registrar, Supreme Court of India)

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