Budget of big ideas and big hurdles
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Every year, the presentation of the Union Budget is nothing more than an unbearable cacophony of Band, Baja and Baraat. On B-day, the same set of experts for all seasons and sauces regurgitate the same views on a deficit, dream or wow budget; an employment generating or game-changing exercise. After grabbing front-page headlines and unleashing prime-time gabfests involving the 54 usual suspects of the past few years, even those who wrote and read the budget doze off until its playtime again.
This trend is not because the budget is a perishable product. It simply does not attract additional eyeballs on TV or boost the readership of newspapers, which are full of articles and opinions meant for various peer groups. The budget’s energy of intent rarely penetrates the massive informal and unorganised part of the Indian economy. This time, after almost two decades, it was designed for the masses and not the markets. Stereotyped jargon was conspicuous by its absence. The spiritual relevance of Swami Vivekananda was invoked to define the road map for development and growth.
However, the longevity of the debate over the latest budget would be much longer than that of the previous ones. B-2018 will be under the constant scrutiny of both political leaders and the public because it has left hardly any sector untouched. It makes big promises to address almost every aspect of the country—young India to senior citizens, roads to airports, smart cities to rural India, farmers to professionals and rich to poor. It also saw one of the longest bilingual speeches ever made by a finance minister. Missing during those two and a half hours were frequent interruptions by the Opposition and the mandatory clapping from the treasury benches.
The political class did not express the usual enthusiasm since they were unable to grasp the real intention behind the words and verbs of the speech. The only time ruling party MPs were seen thumping desks with great gusto was when the FM announced the reintroduction of a 10 per cent tax on long-term capital gains. This meant the party fully endorsed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s calculated turn towards the Swadeshi fiscal model.
B-2018 clearly reflects Modi’s mindset. It is evident from his statements during the past 42 months that Modinomics is tilted towards left nationalism rather than centrist liberalism. Ever since he took over, the PM has been talking of big numbers and mega projects. In an unprecedented move for any Prime Minister, Modi spoke outside about the budget. Previous Prime Ministers would just give a two-minute byte to Doordarshan praising their budgets. But Modi spoke for 25 minutes, explaining the massive impact B-2018 is expected to have on the economy. He listed each and every new step the government has initiated to create a New India by doubling farm income and ensuring a growth rate of about eight percent.
With Budget 2018, the PM stuck to his reputation of a record breaker. He launched the largest ever health care scheme, covering 10 crore families comprising 50 crore Indians—which means every fourth person out of ten would get health insurance cover of `5 lakh. Nowhere in the world has any country ever announced a programme involving such a huge number of people. He made the gargantuan resolve to double farmers’ income by raising the Minimum Support Price for agricultural produce by 150 per cent. The commitment to raise the number of functional airports fivefold from the current 126 is a record-breaking decision. These announcements were accompanied by indications of opening at least one medical college in every three districts. To empower women, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojna will give free cooking gas connections to eight crore poor families as against the three crore covered since 2014. Two crore more toilets would be constructed in the next two years.
As far as numbers go, Modi can claim his government has fulfilled many of its promises in its 2014 manifesto. But the budget doesn’t define a clear road map to create the implementation mechanism to turn his dream into reality. For example, hardly any smart city has taken off in the states. The Swachh Bharat Mission is embroiled in red tape and most Indian cities are dirtier than before. A large number of toilets are non-functional in many states due to lack of monitoring on the part of both, Central and state government machinery. The reason for the tardy and defective implementation of the various projects and ideas is the total lack of commitment on the part of the bureaucracy and a few ministers who lack the skill and understanding to deliver.
The fatal flaw is that the Prime Minister thinks well in advance but they fail to provide him with the machinery to achieve his targets. For example, the new health insurance scheme cannot be implemented for six months because babudom has not worked out its financial implications and the administrative apparatus to carry it forward. Since health is a state subject, no attempt has been made to bring all the states on board. Similarly, the budget promises to open 450 additional airports but doesn’t mention the outlay for construction and land acquisition. The budget also states that the nation needs `50 lakh crore for infrastructure development, but has made a provision of only `6 lakh crore.
Modi has amply demonstrated that he is a man of big ideas and innovative skills. But he has been let down by the establishment, which has successfully sabotaged his mission of providing maximum governance with minimum government. The NITI Aayog is more of a successful event management venture, with most of its senior officials promoting their personal agenda and favourites, than a planning body which creates conducive machinery for the fast execution of the Prime Minister’s agenda. While Modi is under no obligation to think about his next budget now, his success as a Vikas Purush lies only in the credible delivery of his promises. For that he cannot afford to leave the spirit of B-18 in the hands of the saboteurs within.