With the announcement of poll dates in five states, the code of conduct for political parties has kicked in with immediate effect. This prohibits all political parties, including the incumbent ruling parties, both at the Centre and in the states concerned, from making important announcements with a view to furthering poll prospects. Currently, all opposition political parties have demanded that the Union budget, scheduled for February 1, 2017, should be postponed till polling ends on March 8.
There seems little room for doubt that budget announcements right in the middle of the poll process will attract the code of conduct, even if the government argues that this date was decided much earlier and no announcements made will be specific to these states. However, Uttar Pradesh alone has over 10 per cent of India’s voting population. Many indications of what the common citizen may expect (very possibly through the budget itself) were already in the prime minister’s year-end announcements, primarily intended to alleviate the widely reported distress caused by demonetisation, particularly amongst poorer sections of the population.
The announcements took advantage of the cosy compromise between the Election Commission (EC) and the government before the Supreme Court in 2001 in Harbans Singh Jalal v/s Union of India and others (with a Union government of the same political complexion then as now); the EC surrendered the right to intervene before a poll was actually “announced”, even if it was imminent, even when satisfied that such announcements were for expected electoral gain.
Earlier, the EC asserted this right any time before an imminent poll, not necessarily after the poll announcement. The Supreme Court itself expressed discomfort with this state of affairs in Subramaniam Balaji v/s State of Tamil Nadu in 2013, and hoped something would be done by way
of a law or otherwise to remedy the situation. But nothing has happened since, nor has any attempt been made by the EC to rework this compromise.
But the EC, subject to laws made by Parliament, has all the powers to intervene in the “residuary space” (not covered by laws made by Parliament) in the interests of a free and fair poll. Significantly, it failed to intervene in the bifurcation of the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh (a first in
independent India when the entire existing legislative assembly opposed the bifurcation) and in the enactment of the Lokpal Act in early 2014, when both the then-mainstream contesting parties thought they would gain electorally from these steps. The EC was restricted, no doubt, by the above compromise. The results are clear — farmer suicides are still rising in Telangana and the Lokpal is still not in existence, over three years after the law’s enactment.
But this does not absolve the EC now from the responsibility of ensuring that incumbents don’t enjoy any special advantage at poll time. Already, the incumbent ruling party at the Centre has possibly gained some advantage from the prime minister’s announcements on New Year’s eve. So, the EC should not allow further damage through the disruption of Parliament’s time (which will surely happen if the budget is tabled as proposed now) and the resultant waste of public money. The EC should also insist on the budget’s postponement by not accepting the highly specious arguments of the ruling party on this issue.
For the future, the EC should seek a review of the 2001 compromise till Parliament can actually find time to enact a law in its wisdom. This will prevent bribery of voters through a “legal process”, as is happening now. Certain suggestions made recently to amend the law and make bribing of voters a cognisable offence, or the ruling party insisting that all contributions to political parties over Rs 2,000 should be by name, merely tinker at the huge problem of legal bribery that is permissible today.
The EC surely needs to fix this fast. In the process, the EC can also recapture some of the lost glory of its Seshan days.