Poll panel bars schemes in Budget for election-bound states

Shortly after the Supreme Court turned down a petition seeking to restrain the government from presenting Union Budget on 1 February (See: SC dismisses PIL for delaying budget till after state polls), the Election Commission barred it from announcing any schemes specific to the poll-bound states "which may have the effect of influencing the electors ... in favour of the ruling party".

While a bench of Chief Justice J S Khehar and Justices N V Ramana and D Y Chandrachud said presenting the Union Budget would not amount to a violation of the mode code of conduct, the EC in a letter sent to the cabinet secretary late on Monday opined that announcing state-specific schemes or highlighting government achievements in the five poll-bound states in the Budget speech would disturb a level playing field.

"The Commission hereby directs that in the interest of free and fair elections and in order to maintain a level playing field during elections, no state-specific schemes shall be announced in the national budget which may have the effect of influencing the electors of the five poll-going states in favour of the ruling party. It may be ensured that in the Budget speech, the government's achievements in respect of the said five states will also not be highlighted in any manner," stated the EC.

It also referred to its advisory sent to all states and Union territories on 9 March 2009, where it had pointed to the convention of taking a vote-on-account for 3-4 months instead of presenting a full budget where a general election is imminent or when the process of general election has been announced and the model code of conduct is in operation. "It contributes to healthy democratic practice," it stated.

While saying that it would not like to lay down a precept or prescribe a course of action, the EC did advise that in case of states going to assembly polls, a vote on account should be taken.

The Commission on Monday told the cabinet secretary that it "expects that the advice given by the Commission in that letter (cited above) be duly kept in view by the government at the time of presentation of the budget in the next financial year 2017-18".

Earlier on Monday, the apex court said it was not convinced by petitioner advocate M L Sharma's contention that policies announced in the budget were bound to influence people in states going to polls.

"Give us just one concrete example through illustration on how budget will influence the minds of people in states. Give us one example from the last budget to explain how central budget affects people of a state," the court told him.

Dismissing the plea, the bench said state elections were conducted round the year and the government would never be allowed to place the budget in Parliament if assembly polls were to be a ground.