A united Opposition has approached the Election Commission (EC) seeking postponement of the presentation of the Union Budget for 2017-18 till the completion of polls to the five state assemblies, for which the schedule has already been announced. The primary argument advanced by these parties is that the Narendra Modi government would use the budget, which it wants to present on February 1, to dole out various sops to “allure” voters while these polls are held between February 4 and March 8. This, they say, would give an unfair advantage to the ruling party at the Centre. In fact, the very decision by this government to advance the presentation of the budget from the normal date of February 28 till now has been made with a view to influence voters, it is alleged. To buttress its point, the Opposition has also cited the precedent of the last 2012 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. The Union budget was, then, presented on March 16, by which time the poll process had already been completed.
The Opposition’s reasoning is facile, not the least because it assumes the gullibility of the Indian voter; that she will be easily swayed by populist schemes and announcements days before the polling day. Empirical evidence doesn’t suggest such fickle voter behaviour. The verdicts in successive elections, if at all, point to voters both ruthlessly ejecting out governments as well as re-electing them. In either case, they seem to exercise judgement based on some long-term performance metrics. Even the most attractive sop has been known to be assessed based not on overnight announcement, but actual delivery on the ground that takes time. But even supposing that the voter does respond to short-term allurements, the question can be thrown back to the Opposition: Can a popularly elected government at the Centre be denied the right to make announcements, populist or otherwise, during its tenure just because of state-level elections?
It raises a fundamental issue. Every year, there are assembly elections during which the EC’s Model Code of Conduct comes into effect and which is also applicable to the Centre insofar as announcements or policy decisions pertain to the states concerned. In 2014, this code was in force for over a month, while in 2015 and 2016, these extended to more than two months and two-and-half months respectively. The current round of polls, too, would stretch for over a month. Simply put, it means that during the five years of any government at the Centre, there will be at least nine months cumulatively over which assembly elections to various states take place. Should policy paralysis for these months be a prerequisite for the holding of free and fair elections? Surely, this is not what the drafters of our Constitution had in mind.