Middle-Class Anger and Budget 2018

I have to live for others and not for myself, that’s middle-class morality”. The satirical thrust of George Bernard Shaw’s words from Pygmalion has come to haunt and taunt the middle class once again.

Published: 04th February 2018 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th February 2018 10:26 AM   |  A+A-

Shankkar aiyAr
Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric 
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India

I have to live for others and not for myself, that’s middle-class morality”. The satirical thrust of George Bernard Shaw’s words from Pygmalion has come to haunt and taunt the middle class once again.  The eerie sense of déja vu—of being caught between expectations and reality, between the haves and the have nots, between the conscience and the consciousness of wants—visited the middle class again this week.Budget 2018 is timed and tailored for realpolitik—coming as it does in the run-up to Assembly polls in crucial states, and general elections. It leverages bottom-of-the-pyramid economics for bottom-of-the-pyramid political outcomes. In every decade, political realignment and regime change has been enforced by the youth and farmers. The budget underlines the electoral concerns and political compulsions of the ruling regime and validates the reality that is Bharat.

Essentially it is a promise of hope, a prayer and a plea of appeasement. The speech devotes 35 paragraphs and over 2,200 words to agriculture and rural India, 25 paragraphs and over 1,500 words to health, education and social protection, 12 paragraphs across 750 words to MSMEs and employment–for emphasis the speech mentions the poor 21 times, farmers 25 times, agriculture 16 times, health 29 times and employment 17 times.

The middle class gets four mentions—two generic and two specific—and a lollipop sop. Unsurprisingly, the social media is riveted with post-budget memes and jokes forwarded and re-forwarded on WhatsApp groups with amendments and emoticons. Old word plays have found new relevance. Here is a sample. “What is the difference between a fine and a tax? Fine is a tax for doing wrong and a tax is a fine for doing right.” Another says the poor get subsidies, the rich get rebates and the middle class TV debates. Dark humour seems to be the palliative of choice.

Embedded in the anger is cynicism about the state of systemic sloth, the impatience is about the pace of change. The response of the BJP, its spokespersons and the spin doctors suggests that the middle class is missing the woods for the trees. Lecturing the middle class what is in the budget for them or how they will gain from overall growth is to discount the intelligence of the middle class.  The anger is scarcely about the steps being taken to alleviate distress in agriculture—this column argued for the need for Amul II, a national grid for agricultural produce in 2014 (http://bit.ly/1pfJUiz) and that everything can wait but not agriculture (http://bit.ly/2drcwYL).

The reality of farmer suicides is not unknown.  It is elementary that no economy can grow if half its workforce lives off less than 15 per cent of national income. It is known and the middle class comprehends the arithmetic of basic economics. The middle class is not questioning the attention to or allocation of monies for agriculture. The questions are about what and how—and why. For instance, why is eNAM floundering, or why, despite being mentioned in every budget since 2014, is the idea of a 
unified market for agriculture yet to take off.

The need for investment in the broken system of education is known (http://bit.ly/2bIEH52) and felt on the ground by parents who are forced to send their children to private tutors—in effect spending twice to educate the child once. More and more parents are sending children to private schools despite the higher spend on education. Migrating from blackboards to digital boards is a grand idea—provided the thousands of schools that have no electricity are first lit up. The pitiable state of public health care is validated by the fact that over 75 per cent of people are forced to fork out money to private health care providers—this despite the fact that the spend by the Centre and states has doubled to `2.25 lakh crore. 

The grief of the people is about expectations and about the inequities in the system. Start-ups in Bengaluru and Mumbai are struggling with notices that treat capital raised for the venture as income. The evangelism of self-employment is not followed up by change on the ground. Those providing services, for instance, are subject to 18 per cent GST, with little scope of set-off and income tax resulting in higher outgoes than those, perhaps, of many corporates. 

The anguish is about the unbearable burden of sameness. It is about the perpetuation of the excess of cess, of financial and administrative inefficiency. It is about value destruction and erosion of public wealth. It is about the fact that after Indra Dhanush, Gyaan Sangam, Bureau of Bank Boards and many sermons, public sector banks are still in the ICU. It is about the fact that the railways need to ask the Army to build bridges. It is about the fact that PSUs continue to lose over `70 crore every day and that new PSUs are under construction. It is about the fact that of the `6 lakh crore borrowed by the government, over `5.75 lakh crore goes to pay interest, and that much of the debate is about taxes and taxpayers and very little about expenditure efficiency—what happened to the Bimal Jalan Expenditure Management Commission report? 

The 2014 mandate was against corruption, bottom-of-the-pyramid electoral economics. This government has articulated new ideas. The issue is not about articulation of intent but about execution of intention. The promise of 100 new cities became smart cities and morphed into dumb policies. Make in India is daunted by the persistence of permission raj. Swachch Bharat is mired in the failure of states to provide funds, functions and functionaries to panchayats and municipalities. Skill India is now under a new minister in a new avatar—ideally it should be left to the states to design PPPs with the private sector.

The anger of the middle class is about relief that was expected and which is not in the budget. The sentiments expressed on social media reflect the angst about governance at large—it is about expectations of change that is stalled and yet to arrive.
shankkar.aiyar@gmail.com

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