God of Small Things

Finance minister Arun Jaitley, a longtime cricket administrator, on Thursday while presenting the first budget of the Modi government, preferred to mould himself in the role of legendary sedate opening batsman Sunil Gavaskar rather than go for the stylistics of stroke-maker Sachin Tendulkar.

Given the onerous task of meeting expectations of having ‘ache din’ (good days) and batting on the pitch made treacherous by low growth rate, double-digit inflation for food items and the shadow of a possible drought looming large, Jaitley marshaled all at his disposal to put in place a financial document that laid down a broad policy indicator of the ‘beginning of a journey towards a sustained growth of 7-8 per cent or above within the next 3-4 years along with macro-economic stabilisation that includes lower levels of inflation, lesser fiscal deficit and a manageable current account deficit.’
Having come to power promising everybody’s growth – Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas- the NDA government in its opening budget had to reach out to all such sections of society which reposed faith in it in large numbers. He managed to achieve this with some dexterity and aplomb, reaching out with tax and other financial benefits to women, youth, senior citizens and the urban middle-class. He addressed the emerging constituency of defence personnel and north-east with some legerdemain. He reached out to industries with adroitness assuring there would not be retrospective taxation. And to cap it all, he asserted that the government has not lost focus of the lynchpin of the poll campaign – anti-Congress plank.

While it left the flagship Congress programmes like the MNREGA untouched for now, it made no bones about the fact that the new government believed in disassociating with Congress legacies. While it named the programmes after the anti-Congress icons like Syama Prasad Mookerjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyay, Madan Mohan Malviya and Jaya Prakash Narayan, it also set aside an amount of Rs 200 crore for building the 182-metre tall statue of Sardar Vallabh Bhai Patel at Saradar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat.

Refusing to be miserly on symbolism, Jaitley also announced building of a war memorial in the memory of the Indian soldier at Princess Park, close to India Gate, the war memorial built by the British post World War I and launching the ‘Namami Ganga’ scheme for cleaning river Ganga.
Symbolism aside, using age old wisdom of creating work in rural areas during the period of drought, he unveiled a flurry of programmes to counter the threat posed by a weak monsoon including the revival of rural roads scheme, loan for rural youth, loan to landless and long-term agro loan among others. This would in fact stand a counter to the criticism that he has not made much provision for rural areas in face of drought given that he has made a provision of just Rs 1000 crore.

The budget was in more Gavaskar mould than Tendulkar style, because Jaitley stopped short of big ticket reforms. Raising FDI in defence production from 26 percent to 49 percent, in insurance sector from 26 percent to 49 percent and revising limits for FDI in construction sector was not unexpected rather short of expectation. While he said that he wished to do away with the policy of rampant subsidisation, inherited from the predecessor government, there was nothing much in the financial statement to reflect a will to move in that direction as of now. Thus the budget can be summed-up in Jaitley’s own words: ‘It would not be wise to expect everything that can be done or must be done to be in the first budget presented within forty five days of the formation of this government.’
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