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Budget 2017: Opposition tilting at windmills, more serious is the issue of thanksgiving freebies

Budget 2017: Opposition tilting at windmills, more serious is the issue of thanksgiving freebies

Come election time and political parties in India indulge in the game of one-upmanship when it comes to freebies. Cycles, grinders, mixies, laptops and what-have-you are promised with gay abandon from out of governmental resources if voted to power, and the electorate lays siege to the government even if it discerns the slightest hesitation in delivering of these promises made almost with drunkards’ enthusiasm.

The Supreme Court, a couple of years ago, asked the Election Commission (EC) to look for ways and means to rein in this dangerous tendency which to its mind did smack of post-election thanksgiving or post election bribes by the party voted to power. But the EC doesn’t seem to have been able to address itself to this more serious issue. Instead it continues to accord importance to the model code of conduct, a web designed by the EC in collaboration with the political parties into which many of them fall unwittingly.

Against this backdrop, it is just plain hypocritical for the opposition parties to find fault with the advancement of the budget 2017 to 1 February, 2017. Mind you, this advancement from the traditional last day of February budget was not an afterthought but announced almost six months ago. So much so, the charge of the government doing this to offer sops—in the budget in the run up to the elections in five states—in the wake of and to neutralize what it calls the demonetization fiasco does not have any substance. One wonders incidentally why the opposition has not taken the EC to task for not conducting the elections a few days earlier, i.e. in the month of January 2017 before the 1 February, 2017 budget. The reason of course is obvious—attacking the BJP gains more traction in the media and in the mind space of the electorate than attacking the constitutional body that is the EC.

The moral code of conduct that virtually brings governance to standstill once the poll dates are announced by the EC is meant to provide a level playing field to the Opposition. In its absence, the government in saddle might go amok with public resources to worm into the hearts of the gullible electorate, goes the rationale. But political pundits in India shower gushing praises on the sagacity of the Indian electorate which votes out the corrupt and the non-performers ruthlessly. Another paean sung is the wily electorate accepts freebies but votes the way it is appropriate without any compunctions or pangs of conscience. Be that as it may, the point is if it is not inconsistent to rein in the party in governance while giving a free rein to all the parties including the one in saddle to promise recklessly pretty much what they please in their manifestos. The level playing field argument simply does not wash if you concede that while the alleged official bribe is offered upfront in the run-up to the elections, the freebies are offered post-facto i.e. after the elections. How come the latter is kosher while the former isn’t? In other words, manifestos can be corrupt, as it were, but not the government in saddle!

Furthermore, it is an insult to the electorate to say that they suffer from amnesia and forget the sops offered a few days before the election dates are announced by the ruling dispensation. Indeed by the weird logic of the model code of conduct, all sops and good work done from the day one in office must be assailed.
A cursory look at the model code reveals that it is freewheeling and not only obsesses with the government in power. It talks about speeches, use of premises just about everything. The closest it says about budget is the line prohibiting financial grants being given to the electorate. As the BJP rightly argues the union budget caters to the whole nation and is not specific to the five states going to poll post-budget.

If the EC and political parties are really anxious about a level playing field, they must heed Prime Minister Modi and agree for a common election schedule and dates for both state assemblies and the Lok Sabha. The chances are parties in power in the states might get to match the central government munificence in the matter of sops assuming they are different dispensations. Of course this is a cynical view but appropriate in the circumstances.




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