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25 January 2017 Editorial

 

25 January 2017 

The end of a protest

Everybody loves a good protest — an orderly, self-limiting protest at iconic landmarks organised with state sanction and police protection. But what began as a people’s protest on Chennai’s Marina beach against the ban on jallikattu quickly descended into chaos and confusion when the protesters stood their ground even after the government came up with a practical, legislative solution to the judiciary-imposed prohibition of the annual bull-taming ritual. As the police resorted to force, violence broke out in several parts of Tamil Nadu. Unfortunately, some in the police not only used excessive force but also tried to match the rioters in lawlessness by attacking two-wheelers and setting fire to autorickshaws. Only later in the day did the authorities try to use rational arguments by taking the help of a retired judge and a group of lawyers to persuade the protesters to vacate the Marina where the Republic Day parade is scheduled to be held. Clearly, the government was slow to react, relying more on hope and good fortune than on facts and ground reports. And when it did, it acted as if the agitation was a case of breakdown of law and order. Many among those who had taken the lead in the protests gave a call for withdrawal of the agitation, but by this time the movement had acquired a life of its own. No one thing would have pleased what had become a large, amorphous crowd of several groups of people with very different agenda items: jallikattu was by now no more than a loose binding thread.

For days the Marina had been the haunt of people of all hues. Those owing allegiance to Hindutva saw the ban as an attack on cultural rituals and seemed to make common cause with those from minority communities who felt threatened by the BJP-led government at the Centre. Conservatives sensed a judicial overreach on civil issues and shouted the same slogans as left-wingers who imagined the upsurge to be a people’s uprising against authoritarianism. AIADMK members who tried to showcase the protest as a rebuff to a domineering Centre stood not too far from DMK loyalists who wanted to use the opportunity to paint the State government as inept. Not surprisingly, many of these people wanted the protest to go on, no matter what. The legislation addressed only the symptoms of their anger, not its underlying cause. The government and its police force must take the blame for misreading the mood and mishandling a volatile situation and putting a whole State through an entire day of anger and anguish.

Budgeting for the elections

The suspense over the timing of the Union Budget for 2017-18 finally ended on Monday with the Election Commission and the Supreme Court scotching calls, in the light of upcoming elections for five State Assemblies, to defer the February 1 date proposed by the Centre. The NDA government has been keen to abandon the tradition of presenting the next financial year’s Budget on the last working day of February, citing the potential benefits for the economy from faster spending of the approved public expenditure. With a February-end Budget, transmission of funds, and thereby meaningful implementation, seldom starts before June, by which time the monsoon sets in. This leaves just about two quarters to spend a whole year’s funding for projects involving physical infrastructure capacity-creation, for instance. This is the argument in favour of advancing the Budget date. The Opposition, for its part, has voiced concern that a Budget presentation this year so close to Assembly polls could influence voters. In 2012, the last time these five States were headed for polls, the UPA government had voluntarily opted to defer the Budget presentation. But as the Supreme Court has pointed out, the Central Budget cannot shake the minds of voters in a State.

Interestingly, the Election Commission’s nod for a February 1 Budget comes with the caveat that it must not announce schemes aimed at poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Manipur, Punjab and Goa, or even expound on any achievements of development programmes in these States. The caution to the government to not use the Budget as a campaign tool is understandable, and the government will have to be more nuanced in addressing the concerns of the entire country in the Budget without making a regional pitch. For long, governments have voiced discomfort with the model code of conduct in India’s perpetually ticking election cycle, arguing that it inhibits decision-making. Indeed, this anxiety to reduce the paralysis imposed by the model code has been one of the main reasons cited for a proposal for simultaneous elections to Parliament and State Assemblies. But simultaneous elections could pose their own complications. The departure from practice effected now is an opportunity for the Centre not just to get on with the business of government, but also to do so in a confidence-building manner that would make a case for relaxing further, or reforming, the parameters of the model code. The government must act in good faith, and table a statement on the improvements recorded in outcomes on account of advancing this annual ritual when the Union Finance Minister rises to present the Budget next week. Too-clever-by-half messaging to use the speech as a campaign tool would only imperil this reform.

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