AS we have been constantly reiterating in this space, political consensus is a must to tide over the current political and constitutional crisis. It is no different when it comes to getting the national economy back on track. The Baburam Bhattarai government is in the final stages of preparing the budget for the fiscal 2012-13. While Finance Minister Barsha Man Pun has been pushing for a complete budget, opposition parties have decried the Maoist-led government’s effort to garner bigger vote banks in future polls on the back of a populist budget. There is plenty of substance to the opposition (chiefly Nepali Congress’ and CPN-UML’s) claim that the caretaker government does not have the right to introduce a complete budget. A stance backed by the Election Commission which is suspicious of the government plan to bring a complete budget for the same reason that the opposition parties are. EC is worried that provisions in the new budget could give a particular party significant advantage in the lead up to the CA polls scheduled for Nov 22. Moreover, as EC has pointed out, by bringing a budget with far-reaching consequences the government will be in breach of the electoral code of conduct which bars introduction of big policy measure in the six month period leading to the election.
It has been learned that FM Pun has floated the idea of eight-member expert panel to bring a “consensus budget”, with two representatives each from the four major political forces—UCPN (Maoist), NC, UML and Madhesh-based parties. We believe this is a step forward towards establishing consensus on the upcoming budget. It remains to be seen whether the UPCN (Maoist) is honest in its push for a consensus budget and has not put forth the proposal of a budget panel to give its decision to introduce a full budget greater legitimacy in the eyes of the people. But it is hard to see how a budget pushed through by sidelining the strong voice of the opposition parties could enjoy such legitimacy. Moreover, the President’s Office has already made it clear that the President would not sign any budget not backed by political consensus. This has made consensus on budget even more important.
Yet the opposition parties’ demand that the government introduce stopgap budget that would be enough to pay for the ongoing public projects and salaries of the civil servants, though legitimate, also risks further delaying vital projects and other long-overdue measures to boost the struggling national economy. The fact that over half the development budget for 2011-12 is unspent with under a month to the end of the current fiscal year is a worrying sign of lack of political will to honestly implement devised policies and programs. This further buttresses the argument for a consensus budget, which would call for broad agreement, and at least between the four major political forces, on the issue. We also believe that if the parties can come to some sort of consensus on budget, it could pave the way for similar consensus on other important but contentious political and constitutional issues. After the dismal failure of the Constituent Assembly, the budget offers a wonderful chance for the political class to show that despite their entrenched differences in recent times, they are still capable of working as one on important national issues.