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Going by the book

Print edition : Jan 22, 2000 T+T-

The RJD Government's ready compliance with the Election Commission's request to put off the presentation of the budget during the run-up to Assembly elections in Bihar points to the maturing of the democratic process in the country.

PRAVEEN SWAMI

SOME Bihar-based luminaries such as Sharad Yadav and George Fernandes spent a lot of time during the last Lok Sabha election campaign charging the Election Commission of India with political bias. With Assembly elections in Bihar around the corner, it s hould have been Chief Minister Rabri Devi's turn. But both she and her Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) remain dignified. Events in January illustrate the maturing of the relationship between the E.C. and major political parties, not to mention the concern of the RJD Government for constitutional propriety.

On January 9, almost unnoticed by the media, the Bihar Government agreed to leave the presentation of the State Budget for 2000-2001 to the new government that should be sworn in next month. The move came in response to political concern, underlined by t he E.C., that the presentation of the budget could amount to an unfair election-eve inducement to the electorate. The Bihar Government also agreed not to seek in the ongoing Bihar Assembly session a vote-on-account for four months. It will, instead, pres ent a supplementary demand to meet expenditure through this financial year.

It would have been unprecedented for a State government to present a budget just weeks before an election, but the situation appears to have come about more by accident than by design. The current Assembly's term was to end only on April 9, and had at le ast a vote-on-account not been moved, the State government would have had no funds from April 1. The budget was scheduled considering this imperative. Meanwhile, the E.C. announced the election dates. No one, including State election officials, appears t o have considered the implications.

Even the State unit of the Bharatiya Janata Party woke up to the serious implications of the situation only on January 9. That evening, State BJP officials sent a fax message to the newly appointed Governor, V.C. Pande, complaining that his address would add to the problems. The Governor's address to the Assembly, the BJP said, would outline development programmes and the economic agenda for the coming year, the presentation of which ought to be the prerogative of the new government. The budget itself c ould contain election-time bait, which would give the RJD an unfair advantage. And all of this would violate the E.C. Model Code of Conduct.

An embarrassed Pande, sources told Frontline, telephoned Gill to discuss the situation. He was particularly concerned about the position he would be placed in if compelled to deliver a full-fledged budget speech. Gill now asked him to send a forma l letter. Secretary to the Governor M. Kumar despatched a two-page note, pointing out that earlier E.C. guidelines had placed "certain restrictions on the financial expenditure". "Thus," Kumar's note concluded, "'it appears that the presentation of the b udget for the year 2000-2001 may be in conflict with directions issued by the Election Commission." Kumar concluded by asking that "necessary guidelines may be sent to us at the earliest".

At the earliest it had to be, for there was little time left. The Governor's speech was due to be delivered at 11-30 a.m. the next day.

The Chief Election Commissioner's first response was to contact State officials to see how the problem could be sorted out. A welter of fax messages, including the BJP's complaint and the request for information from Pande's office, began arriving at the Election Commission after 9 p.m. Then Gill telephoned Bihar Chief Secretary S.N. Biswas to see what action could be taken. Biswas dithered, refusing to be drawn into making a decision. Perhaps understandably, the bureaucrat was not willing to create a p otential problem for himself.

Gill now took the firm step of demanding to speak directly to the political leadership in Bihar. Perhaps to his surprise, no effort was made to stall a dialogue. Former Chief Minister and Rabri Devi's husband, Laloo Prasad Yadav, came on the line in quic k time. He was cooperative. It was not his intention, the RJD chief told Gill, to provoke a crisis. The scheduling of the presentation of the budget, into which the Opposition had read a dark plot, had taken place months earlier, expecting elections in A pril. Funds had to be made available to run the State. Now that it was made cleared that there was a problem, Laloo Prasad Yadav said, remedial action would be taken.

Laloo Prasad Yadav's compliance was surprising for more than one reason. More than a few State governments have read in the E.C. having abandoned former CEC T.N. Seshan's favoured tactic of holding elections to ransom as a sign of weakness.

Had the RJD wished, it could well have chosen the path of confrontation, and then advertised the E.C.'s inevitable response as a sign of a New Delhi-directed conspiracy against it. Forcing Governor Pande to deliver a controversial and politically fraught speech could also have been deployed as a pre-election assertion of power. Precipitating a crisis of this kind would have enabled the RJD to go to its constituency as a party martyred by the Union Government.

The prompt action that Laloo Prasad Yadav had promised arrived in the form of a one-page missive from Chief Secretary Biswas, which landed at the E.C's offices in New Delhi late at night. Biswas promised that "since the date for the election to the Bihar Legislative Assembly has been announced and the Model Code of Conduct has also come into effect, the State Government has decided not to present (the) budget for 2000-01, and, therefore, the question of seeking (a) vote on account for four months does n ot arise. "The State Government," the note continued, "has further decided only the 2nd supplementary for meeting expenditure for the current financial year."

Biswas' note left little ambiguity on the other important issue either. "In view of the circumstances mentioned above," he recorded, "the State Government has further decided to recast the address of His Excellency (the) Governor of Bihar to be delivered on January 11, 2000. Keeping in view the Model Code of Conduct, the State Government would seek the opportunity to reassure the Election Commission of India that the instructions contained in the Model Code of Conduct will be fully adhered to." A reliev ed Pande was told late that night that his staff was to be given a new speech, which would steer clear of potential controversy.

Deputy Election Commissioner Sayan Chatterjee was given the task of making sure that the Bihar Government was left with no room for tactical manoeuvre. Chatterjee, acting on instructions, wrote back to Biswas, recounting each point in the previous night' s message, fleshed out and rendered explicit. "The State Government has indicated that since the new Assembly will have enough time in March 2000, they do not propose to seek a vote-on-account for the new financial year. They have decided to present only the 2nd Supplementary, to meet expenditure gaps in the current financial year. The Commission has further noted the assurances of the Government of Bihar, that the instructions of the model code of conduct would be fully adhered to."

Pande's speech went off with hardly a hitch. Gill had more than a little reason for quiet satisfaction. Without resorting to brow-beating, threats to postpone elections, or an unsavoury public fracas, constitutional propriety had been maintained. A simil ar situation, had it emerged five years ago, would in all probability have led to a bitter showdown between the State government and the E.C. If nothing else, the episode showed the distance political parties have travelled through the term of the presen t Chief Election Commissioner. He, in turn, expressed through Chatterjee's letter appreciation for the "prompt response of the Government of Bihar to ensure a fair and clean election, in the best democratic tradition."

Gill has repeatedly affirmed the need for the E.C. to work with parties, rather than to see itself as their adversary. Wide-ranging consultations have become common. The consequences have not always been as visible as they were during Seshan's term, but, as the Bihar budget episode illustrates, the gains have perhaps been more abiding. As Chatterjee's letter points out, "the Commission is confident that, in fact, not only in Bihar but in all States going to the polls shortly, all concerned will be consc ious that this is the first election in the country in the New Year and the new millennium." He added: The Commission is confident that all involved will ensure that this exercise does credit to the country."

Civil Aviation Minister Sharad Yadav might do well to pay attention. Contesting the Madhepura Lok Sabha seat against the RJD chief, Sharad Yadav had proclaimed that he was the victim of massive electoral fraud, the misuse of the official apparatus, and s o many other crimes against democracy. Defence Minister George Fernandes, playing bass to Laloo Prasad Yadav's shrill soprano cries, had claimed that the Lok Sabha elections in Bihar were hugely unfair. Unfortunately for both of them, Sharad Yadav won th e Madhepura seat and Fernandes' Samata Party did well in the State. To his credit, Laloo Prasad Yadav, has chosen not to slander the E.C. in order to protect himself from the consequences of any electoral reverse.