The last mile
Even before Union Minister Piyush Goyal, filling in for the ill Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, begun with his Budget speech, the nation knew the flavour of the same – a populist one. With one eye fixed on the upcoming general elections, the budget had all ingredients of wooing the voters. Gazing through the salient features of this interim budget, also pegged as the Modi government's report card, it was not difficult to spot the premediated improvisations done in the interest of voters. The sensitive points from the recent ruckus caused due to the lotus party's loss in the recent state elections subtly fared in the interim budget. Looking through the lens of national interest, the budget was an all-pleasing one. While complete tax rebate for incomes up to Rs.5 Lakh captivated the middle-class, Rs. 6000/annum for poor farmers under PM Kisan scheme led the agriculture-related announcements. Collectively, these two covered Modi's targeted voter segment. After the 10 per cent reservation masterstroke, an increment of 2 Lakh seats for the same came in to support the move. Reforms in stamp duty, revised Centre-state fund sharing, new AIIMS for Haryana, unprecedented budgetary allocation for defence, a separate department for fisheries, et al constituted for a glittering interim budget pegged with a massive capital expenditure of Rs 3.3 trillion. Not leaving out tax sops – constituting a very significant part of the budget – the government successfully managed to tend to the issues that had threatened the chances for their second run. Noting how the interim budget was the last mile before election campaigning begins, the government utilised it in the manner expected. The icing on the cake was how specific schemes – ones benefitting the targetted beneficiaries considering the ripe moment – have been brought in effect from this fiscal (2018-2019) itself. While the interim budget will invariably be hailed as a populist one citing the vested interest to please the voters, key reforms and improvisations are definitely appealing. Tax sops alone possess the capability to elate a large section of people. It is another story if they look at the larger picture or not. Fundamentally, the government has done what it was supposed to and what is expected of it. Had this been a non-election year, a curious mind wonders if the gravity of reforms would have been the same. Many might opine that it would not. Not because the government was incapable of such changes then but simply because what is the need. The past four budgets created the stage for this interim one to thrive, and so it did, in letter and spirit. Condemning it for its populist nature will be a cynic's favourite pass time. With the interim budget hanging from the mast, the saffron ship announced its arrival for the competition to decide who will rule these waters for the next five years. What rises above the cliche discourse of a popular and pleasing budget is the government's consistency. Had the magnitude of this budget being shared by the previous four, there would have been fewer cynics. The debate is not whether the budget is going to woo the voters or not. It rather focusses on whether the government realises that consistency is a more favourable alternative when pegged against bonuses. A salaried person will want an increased salary over seasonal bonuses. It is another story if bonuses come on top of regular appraisal – which becomes a utopian concept in terms of government's actions. The point is that the government could have lent an ear and heard the farmer cries before for statistics do not just speak for this fiscal. Like the budget, where fiscal deficit does not only account current fiscal's story but previous and the coming year as well, similarly the statistics present a cumulative account of the five years of the Modi regime. An average voter would not have to participate in the ugly political discourse or squabbles over callous governance if the policies are in place and implementation is flawless. The requisiteness of such a budget arose only due to the lacunas which were left unaddressed over the period of incumbency. The interim budget gave the biggest ever defence expending of Rs. 3 trillion which is nearly equal to the entire capital expenditure also speaks a lot about the bigger concern of disarmament in peace times. Although that is something that India invariably has to do to compete with other nations. Yet, other sectors could be given a piece of it. The budget speech had the tone of success with all the development that had been carried out in the 5-year period, citing economic upliftment and social welfare for the marginalised, and striving to continue doing so, but it lacked the capacity to convey the far-fetched concern of consistency, which, in the larger scheme of things, makes all the difference!