On 4th January, the Election Commission of India (ECI) ushered in the New Year with the much belated announcement of the dates of the crucial state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur. To give a lowdown to the greenhorn citizen, who does not have his eyes and ears to the political opera that has unfolded over the past year or so, these elections, especially in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Goa, acquire a special significance due to the ongoing generational tussle in the first family of Uttar Pradesh and due to the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as a worthy challenger to the malaise-ridden, tried-and-tested politics of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) and the Congress in Punjab and Goa.
By presenting the budget before state elections, the BJP wishes to influence the 168 million voters by announcing subsidies and incentives in order to smooth over the after-effects of demonetisation.
In a seemingly separate, but deeply related announcement, signals have emanated from the ivory towers of the BJP-ruled central government that the Union Budget for FY 17-18 is going to be presented on 1 February—two days before the crucial states of Punjab and Goa go to polls—instead of 28 February, which has been the usual date for presenting the budget for many decades. The government is clearly adamant on presenting the budget on 1 February, even when it has never been a secret that the election processes for the five states will be held sometime around February. This clearly begs the question as to why the central government is in such a tearing hurry to push forward the budget exercise. A beleaguered opposition, led by the Congress party, has approached the ECI to take cognizance of the fact that sops and freebies announced in the Union Budget might exert undue influence on the voters in the upcoming polls. However, the central government reasons that the budget is an annual constitutional financial exercise and there exists no causal relation between voting patterns in the upcoming elections and the presentation of budget, a few days prior.
In the present case there can be three possible scenarios:
1) Best case scenario
- The budget is presented on 9 March with no chance for the ruling party to influence or manipulate the 168 million voters (~13.5% of India's total population) by announcing sops/freebies.
- This will provide a level playing field for all the political parties concerned.
2) Compromise scenario
- The budget is presented on the usual date of 28 February.
- This way voting in 78.4% of the total number of seats (541 out of 690 seats) would have been over and voters in only 21.6% of the total number of seats (149 out of 690 seats) would be open to being influenced.
3) Worst case scenario
- The budget is presented on 1st February, before all the state elections are held.
- BJP announces sops and freebies to exert undue influence on unsuspecting voters and gets undue advantage.
Keeping our political pre-dispositions aside, let us evaluate both sides of the argument through the lens of historical precedence:
1) The Congress led UPA coalition, postponed the presentation of the union budget in 2012 to prevent an impending clash with the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand and Manipur (the same states that are going to polls this year). This was done at the request of the then principal opposition party—the BJP.
2) In S. Subramaniam Balaji vs. Govt. of Tamil Nadu & Ors (5th July 2013), the Hon'ble Supreme Court noted:
"... the reality cannot be ruled out that distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree. The Election Commission through its counsel also conveyed the same feeling both in the affidavit and in the argument that the promise of such freebies at government cost disturbs the level playing field and vitiates the electoral process and thereby expressed willingness to implement any directions or decision of this Court in this regard."
3) In 2012, before the state elections in Uttar Pradesh, the ECI ordered the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), to cover the giant statues of then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati and BSP's party symbol—the elephant—with cloth; so as to prevent undue influence on the voter.
[The] distribution of freebies of any kind, undoubtedly, influences all people. It shakes the root of free and fair elections to a large degree. Supreme Court ruling
There are many more such instances, where either the ECI or the political party concerned took suo moto cognizance of a "Moral Code of Conduct", apart from the obvious "Model Code of Conduct", in light of the fact that freebies and sops abase the most important exercise of representational democracy. The alacrity with which the BJP is willing to wield constitutional instruments to further its aims and abuse institutions for petty political gains is unsurprising, given its checkered track record.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's mini-budget speech on 31 December, made it clear that the present government was fearful of a backlash in rural India, which is reeling under stress due to the desultory and inefficacious exercise of demonetisation. By preponing the budget date, BJP has also exposed the hollowness and chinks in its ostensibly strong armour. By presenting the budget before crucial state elections, the BJP wishes to influence the 168 million voters by announcing subsidies and incentives in order to smooth over the after-effects of demonetisation.
Machiavelli, in his seminal treatise of power and politics had remarked: "Ethics is a function of politics and not politics that of ethics." Alas, the BJP has successfully married the worst aspects of Machiavellian politics with the incompetence matched only by the vaudeville politics of a totalitarian state. This is a truly unique Indian tragedy.