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20 January, 2019 11:05:45 AM

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Countdown begins for India polls

As is the convention in India, in an election year the government presents a vote-on-account with no expansion of spending outlays or tax changes
Kumkum Chadha
Countdown begins for India polls

The countdown to the 2019 polls has begun: the clock is fast ticking and instead of months and years one is talking in terms of days: 90 days:  maybe less or more.  The Parliament session slated for January end is also the last this government will face. The fact that Union Minister Arun Jaitley has indicated that there could be more expected in the last budget of the Modi government than a mere vote on account indicates that the Government has some tricks up it sleeve.
Speaking through a satellite link from the USA where he has gone for a medical check up, Jaitley indicated that  the Centre was open to the possibility of presenting a full budget “in the larger interests of the economy”.

This would be a departure from convention but then as Jaitley said “larger interests of the economy (could) dictate what goes into the Union budget”.
The statement is an indication that the government could present a full budget instead of the usual interim vote-on-account.
There is enough speculation about Jaitley’s health and his TV appearance is an attempt to quash rumours that he may not present the budget on February 1 because of health reasons. Many scribes jumped the gun and attribute a serious  illness to him with very little evidence.

However, in his television interview, Jaitley appeared fit and spoke of the  “bigger picture” and said that while India has been able to mark many successes in the economic sphere, it also faces  “challenges” adding that  “some of these challenges cannot afford to wait.”

As is the convention, in an election year the government presents a vote-on-account with no expansion of spending outlays or tax changes, as otherwise it could be construed that it was trying to woo the electorate with promises it could not keep if it is not re-elected.

Legally and technically there is nothing wrong if  a full Budget is presented. The government of the day can present a populist Budget with schemes, policies, and also tax rates and it is not incumbent on the next government to adhere to the proposals, giving it the freedom to present a new Budget.  This is more about convention that a government in election year present a proposal seeking consent to incur expenditure to tide over the interim period before a new government is elected.

According to Article 114 of the Constitution of India, no amount can be withdrawn from the Consolidated Fund of India without authorisation from Parliament or legislature of the States. And so an Appropriation Bill need be passed as a part of Budget exercise, which is then presented to the President/Governor after budgetary estimates are approved. It becomes an Act after the assent by the President/governor to the Bill. Hence, the concept of Vote on Account has been there to keep the government business going.

There is also a date factor around the speculation. Earlier, the Budget was presented on February 28. By the time the whole process — debate, reference to standing committee, report of committee, and final passage — happened it used to be May-end or June. Therefore, Vote on Account was adopted for a certain period so work doesn’t stop till the final Budget is passed.

The Narendra Modi-led government advanced the Budget date to February 1, while maintaining the same fiscal year of April 1- March 31. This advancement also meant that the entire exercise of getting the mandatory Parliamentary approvals was concluded by March 31 and there was no need to get receipts and expenditure approvals for two-three months, as was the case earlier.

 Even if the Government presents a Vote on Account, nothing stops the  Finance Minister from reading a speech and  making a vision statement. While doing that there is no bar on his saying what the government intends to do if re-elected. There could be objections by the Opposition when he talks of cess, customs duty or  schemes, but the Finance Minister would have made his point.

The BJP, it is well known, is under pressure and therefore it departing from convention and using the Budget as a tool to announce populist schemes either through presenting a full Budget or a Vision statement cannot be ruled out.

Though the Indian economy is officially forecast to grow 7.2 per cent this year, job growth has been slow, farm prices very low and businesses not robust. Add to that the fears of a liquidity crisis after IL&FS defaulted on its debts. It therefore makes sense for the government to announce  pre-election packages for farmers, small businesses and the middle class. Pitch this against Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s statement that “more sixers” are in the offing while referring to the upper caste quota as the “first sixer” and it fits in.

The general elections are due in April-May this year and they come close after the BJP has lost three crucial state assembly elections in the Hindi heartland.

This could be one of the reasons for it to offer sops and woo voters who are moving away from the saffron party. The Modi magic, as it is well known, is on the wane.

Add to this the other threat that is looming large:  of regional parties tying up and posing a united challenge to the BJP. Ofcourse the grand Opposition unity or the Mahagadbandhan has not taken off as desired but regional satraps tying up in different states is enough to cause alarm within the BJP even though it maintains that there is no danger from this to it. But it cannot be oblivious to the dangers of the Samajawadi and Bahujan Samaj Party tying up in the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh and  Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal riding piggy back could spell trouble for the BJP. The only silver lining is that the Congress has been left out of this alliance which is good news for the BJP because a divided Opposition especially with the Congress and the others vying for the same votes can only benefit the BJP or so it at least hopes.

A fragmented Opposition is, as of now,  BJP’s best bet and considering that Congress President Rahul Gandhi has come of age and is making the right noises, the Opposition not wooing him only gives hope to the beleaguered BJP.

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (kumkum91@gmail.com)  

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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