COVID-19 notwithstanding, the Budget session of Parliament will begin on January 31 with the President’s Address, and the Union Budget on February 1.
Traditionally, the Union Budget was presented every year on the last working day of February. However, in 2017, the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley changed the tradition. He brought the day forward by four weeks, to February 1. The Railway Budget, too, was subjected to similar unwarranted changes under the Modi government. Until 2016, it was presented a few days before the Union Budget. In 2017, the BJP (with only muted objections from the Congress) subsumed the Railway Budget under the Union Budget and ended a 92-year-old practice . Since then, the Railway Budget has bypassed the scrutiny of Parliament. This is just one of the many examples of the Modi government mocking the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. It was a precursor of parliamentary oversight, which peaked with the draconian farm laws of September 2020.
Budget as a political instrument
It is common knowledge that the Union Budget announces new schemes, welfare programmes, tax and fiscal benefits, and the Railway Budget was centric to one Ministry. In the last five years, on more than one occasion, the BJP has used the combined entities before elections to pitch poll promises that it never intends to fulfil. In 2017, the Union Budget was used as an instrument of the BJP’s poll agenda. The Budget was presented three days prior to the elections in Punjab and Goa, and 10 days before the Uttar Pradesh elections. Assembly elections for Uttarakhand and Manipur were also due. The Model Code of Conduct (MCC) had already been announced by the Election Commission (EC). The MCC ensures free and fair elections and specifies that no government can take any action to influence voters in favour of an individual political party.
In 2017, unsurprisingly, the Modi government showed no regard for the MCC. Tax cuts, giveaways, and subsidies were expected in that Budget because of the crippling impact of demonetisation. Critics of the government were suspicious that the Budget would be used for narrow electoral gains. As many as 16 political parties objected to the presentation of the Budget on February 1. Their view did not count. The BJP went ahead with the Budget , arguing that it covered the entire country and that the advancement would ensure all budgetary allocation to different sectors from April 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. Similarly, in 2019, the BJP presented an Interim Budget, weeks before the general election. Its ‘Vision 2030’ was a pipe dream with no fiscal foundation and a brazen, shameless tactic to dupe voters with hollow promises and no deliverables. Months before the Bengal elections of 2021, the Finance Minister announced an allocation of ₹25,000 crore in the Union Budget for the upgradation of roads and highways in the State. Similar measures were announced for Kerala and Tamil Nadu, also going to the polls in a few months then. It is another story that the voters in these States called out the BJP’s bluff.
A cue from 2012
There have been earlier occasions when elections and the presentation of the Union Budget have coincided. For instance, in 2012, there was a chance of the UPA government benefiting through the Budget, with a set of State elections taking place during the same period. At the instance of the then Leader of the Opposition, Arun Jaitley, the UPA government postponed the presentation of the General Budget to March 16. In May 2006, the EC reprimanded then Human Resources Development Minister Arjun Singh for announcing a 27% quota for Other Backward Classes in Central government-funded educational institutions. This was when the MCC was in force in five States. (Those were different times. In the last few years, I have often described the EC as Extremely Compromised.)
On January 8, 2022, the EC announced the schedule for Assembly elections in five States . The MCC has come into place in these States. The BJP government will go ahead with the Union Budget on February 1. There is no reason why it will not use the same formula in these States. Previous Railway Ministers have often been criticised for mollycoddling the States they represented. The BJP insisted that once the Railway Budget got subsumed under the Union Budget, the ‘doing politics with the Railways Ministry’ would end. This has not happened. Allocations made in the Railway Budget in the last few years show how BJP-ruled States have got more than non-BJP ruled States (as a percentage for ongoing projects).
Taking a cue from 2012, the Modi government could have held the Budget after the State election results were declared. But the BJP has scant regard for the institution of Parliament and its conventions and traditions.
Derek O’Brien is Trinamool Congress’ parliamentary party leader in the Rajya Sabha