Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has used her budget speech as an employment guarantee scheme, not for the large army of unemployed in the country, but the protection of her own job. Her entire speech sounded like an anachronistic eulogy for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So much so that Modi himself was seen struggling to hide his embarrassment.
Nirmala Sitharaman’s performance as finance minister has always had a question mark about it. Despite her high pretensions, her track record in dealing with the problems of the economy,
In fact, her conspicuous absence at some of the key budget discussions sessions chaired by Modi, and attended by Home Minister Amit Shah and other bigwigs had given rise to speculations that she might not survive another budget of the Modi regime. But to the surprise of all, she stayed on to present one more budget.
So she seems to have used the budget speech as her own way of expressing her gratitude.
Normally, budget speeches are prepared on the basis of what is contained in the budget. But her budget seems to have been prepared around the budget speech, which was full of platitudes, clichés and wishful thinking. No wonder then that she has created a new record for the time taken to read the speech.
So it was natural that it bore the stamp of Modi’s own style. Aspirational India, for instance, has been a key theme with Modi. So, Sitharaman’s budget also has a liberal share of it. But Modi only concerned himself with the aspirational aspect, but not with the disappointment that may cause due to failure. It was obvious that the finance minister also cared little about how she was going to achieve whatever she was promising.
The speech also had a fair sprinkling of quotes, the real meaning of which was apparently lost on most of those who were listening. The minister herself was seen struggling reading out those quotes. Whoever started this trend of using quotes to neutralise lack of genuine content needs to be confined to a room, with all windows and doors shut, and played a non- stop tape of quotes from BrainyQuotes. What was missing most in her speech was honesty. Nirmala Sitharaman continues to be stingy with the numbers. Like last year, there is no mention of the fiscal deficit numbers or how the money required to pursue the noble objectives of ‘caring India’ would be found.
Aspiring is one thing and achieving it quite another. The budget is full of gaps when it comes to the latter part.
The budget at best touches the periphery as the serious issues that affect the economy, such as job loss, empty pockets of the vast majority of people, lack of purchasing power and the resultant lack of demand. Nothing has been done to take care of these problems, despite the talk of ease of living and caring. There is little that can reverse
But all this has not deterred the finance minister from taking a flight of fantasy. She talks extensively about artificial intelligence, robotics, machine learning and all the fancy stuff. And no cliché is spared. It even includes the highly abhorrent ‘data is the new oil’.
She has also conjured up beautiful images of a transformation in agriculture, with the use of modern farming techniques. It should be considered gracious on her part not have mentioned the use of apps for farming. That would have fit in perfectly with her theme.
As for the real issues with the economy, the finance minister continues to be on her denial mode. Perhaps her biggest mistake as the manager of the country’s economy is her failure to accept the fact that the country has been gripped by economic slowdown. As long as this fact is not recognised, there is no way a solution can be found to the severe economic crisis that is driving people to desperation.
Nirmala Sitharaman seems to be patting herself for keeping the middle-class good-humoured by announcing tax reliefs and a few similar measures. Income tax relief for salaried class is always welcome, but the crucial point not to be missed is the limited scope of using tax rate to solve the problems of the economy as the vast majority of Indians lay outside the tax regime. Jugglery with tax rates may help create a ‘feel good’ effect for the middle class, but that will achieve little in terms of rescuing the economy.
In short, Nirmala Sitharaman’s Modi-centric budget fails to hold up as an earnest effort to exorcise the Indian economy of its afflictions. There is no light at the end of this tunnel.
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own