Can an interim budget presented in an election year go beyond the rigmarole of just presenting the vote on account? There may not have been deviations from the convention of limiting the interim budget to vote on account for meeting routine expenses in the first three months of a new financial year. From the day finance minister Ramaswamy Shanmukham Chetty presented the first budget in Independent India, interim budgets have been routinely drab. Are finance ministers bound by this convention of sticking to just presenting statement of accounts for previous fiscal and vote on account for first three months ahead? Strictly speaking, no. Finance minister Arun Jaitley, undergoing medical treatment in New York, has hinted at deviating from the past conventions this year to meet immediate challenges confronting the economy. If one goes by the statute, there’s nothing in government’s rules of business to say that he cannot go beyond the usual. In an election year finance minister in Jaitley may have to be extra vigilant while defying the convention. His predecessor, P. Chidambaram stuck to the convention of presenting an interim budget on February 28, 2014 ahead of the general elections. Elected government headed by Narendra Modi presented a full regular budget later that year. And, Jaitley did the honours.
Over the years, convention became an unwritten rule or norm as coalition politics set in late ’90s with no single party likely to get a majority on its own. The National Front government headed by VP Singh, had a true federal character with over a dozen political allies as part of his regime. In fact, the VP Singh government’s budgets tried to reflect the common minimum programme evolved by the National Front with differing ideologies i.e. BJP, Left parties and centrist formations hitherto known as Janata Pariwar. Interim budgets over the years allowed a new government or political party to put into operation its fiscal plan on strength of its mandate through a later budget. Even the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by Sonia Gandhi and before that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) piloted by AB Vajpayee’s governments stuck to commonly agreed economic policy imperatives as part of discharging ‘coalition dharma’. So, these governments did not venture out with deviations from presenting an interim budget. It’s for the first time in decades that a single party government with the BJP at the fulcrum got elected in 2014. This may have changed the political and economic narrative for better with the BJP calling the shots notwithstanding splinter groups being its allies. It may also have given Jaitley the strength to deviate from the convention.
Going beyond vote on account may have a message to deliver for the markets and important stakeholders in the economy. A near-regular budget when presented next month would reflect confidence of the BJP to return to power for a second term. Secondly, the budget may be an occasion to be leveraged by the ruling alliance to give a final push for tackling issues confronting rural India through a farmer-centric package. And, the political rhetoric is bound to be there as in the past.