By Anjan Roy
Overshadowed by the news of Rahul Gandhi’s disqualification from parliament, March 24 witnessed another unique parliamentary episode.
For the first time in 75 years history of independent India, the general budget was passed without a debate on the provisions of the budget. It has bypassed all established customs and precedents associated with the passage of the union budget.
Amidst the din and confusions of the last few days, with both treasury bench members and the opposition members raising their respective demands for apology and joint parliamentary probe, the budget provisions were never discussed by the members. The parliament discusses and examines various proposals made in the budget and only then it goes for passage.
In the noise of the shrill cries from both sides, all that happened was the budget was passed by a voice vote by the treasury benches. This is unprecedented. The union budget, comprising government expenditure running into Rs45 lakh crore for the forthcoming fiscal year was cleared without any examination.
And yet, over the last seventy five years, very specific procedures and conventions had emerged for passage of the union budget over the entire budget session. The whole budget session used to be in two parts: one starting immediately after presentation of the budget by the finance minister; the second part of the budget session would start after a brief recess for parliament when other practices used to be followed away from the floor.
Following the presentation of the budget and a preliminary discussion of the budget, parliament would got on a recess. During the recess period the joint parliamentary committees attached to each ministry would go through the proposals for expenditure of all major ministries.
Thereafter, the budget provisions and proposals used to be discussed threadbare by the sitting parliament and in course of the debate budgets for individual ministries would be cleared by parliament. In course of the discussion of the budget, the finance minister and other ministers would often clarify their views and proposals.
Following the intermediate procedures, the members of both treasury bench and opposition would make their observations on the budget. Often, very radical changes to the proposed budget would be suggested in the light of experience.
For example, in one budget presented by Yashwant Sinha, all major proposals regarding taxation and several other measures were rolled back in the face of criticisms from relevant sectors. Detailed analysis of the provisions in the budget speech had revealed the detrimental effect of these proposals.
Another occasion, P Chidambaram, had changed many of his proposals under severe criticism from many quarters. Chidambaram was one of the most aggressive finance minister to defend his budget proposals.
The discussions and proceedings would kind of confer an ownership of the budget by the finance minster and also it used to carry an imprint of the proposer of the budget — that is, finance minister.
Manmohan Singh’s first budget in 1991 would for ever remain etched in county’s memory for the wide-ranging reforms he had introduced. Dr Singh had ended his budget saying he was freeing the “animal spirit” of Indian entrepreneurs.
But the crowning glory for his budget presentation was the wrap line he read out. Quoting French author Victor Hugo, Dr Singh had stated: “No power in the world could stop an idea whose time has come.” And then he asserted that now time has come for India.
In fact, following 1991 reforms, India had struck out on a new path to development. It was so strident that before the end of the year, India had virtually overcome the basic issue it was started with —shortage of foreign exchange reserves which had threatened external default by India.
Today, India’s treasure trove is over half a billion dollars and provides adequate cushion for the country even in the face of global financial turmoil.
In every case of presentation of union budget, in course of discussions of the provisions and the proposals, the finance minister would take ownership of the budget. Every budget was that of the finance minster who presented it.
In the last few years, but mostly acutely in the current one passed on Friday, there is no ownership of the budget.
Under the overwhelming shadow of the prime minister, the finance minister was rather demure to claim it was her budget and asked members to ensure its smooth passage. The budget was today passed by sheer main force — by the shouting brigades ongoing all parliamentary conventions and procedures.
Vesting the authority of clearing the purse of the government with the Lok Sabha —and not the upper house the Rajya Sabha— was important symbol of the expression of popular will.
Subjugating that will of the people in the din of the House was abandoning the voice of the people in deterring how the consolidated fund of India was to be drawn and used for a whole year. It is sad diminution of the democratic rights of the people of India. (IPA Service)