Looking for a budget we deserve
Express Illustration - Sourav Roy

Looking for a budget we deserve

The first full Budget of the 18th Lok Sabha already packs a lot of expectation. There is a palpable air of anticipation around it.

As you read this column, we are just about three weeks away from the presentation of the Union Budget for 2024-25 by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the distinction of being the driver of the Budget ethos possibly for the largest number of times, next only to Jawaharlal Nehru. The first full Budget of the 18th Lok Sabha already packs a lot of expectation. There is a palpable air of anticipation around it.

President Droupadi Murmu was the first to formally kick-start the Budget expectations. In the recent joint session of parliament, the president set the expectations on track. She spoke of “historic steps”, “futuristic vision” and “far-reaching policies”, for a start. Each of these phrases packs a lot of punch. The presidential address, in more ways than one, sets the tone of what is to come. It sets the bar, the standard.

Even as the nation prepares to look at the Economic Survey (which was not released before the last, interim Budget presented before the general election), the tone, tenor and decibel has been set. India is going to see and get a Budget it deserves. What does that mean?

A nation in many ways gets the budget it deserves. There are pre-election budgets and post-election budgets. While the former are normally soft, friendly and toothless, budgets that follow elections are normally tougher and more straightforward. But then that is too simplistic a statement to make. India is complex. We do not have one election season really. One nation, one election is still far away. We have many in a financial year. The months ahead, for instance, will have Maharashtra, Haryana, Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir go to the polls. 

And each of these states come with a complex set of expectations. In many ways, the Union Budget needs to look like a pre-election budget for these states. That is certainly a dampener on the “tougher and more straightforward” budget one speaks of. A nation sure does get the kind of budget it deserves. Tempered by the reality of politics—at the Centre and in the states—as much the wants of the people at large. A budget needs to balance these many expectations, at times even sober down items that point to reform and developmental zeal.

A budget is also about feedback. In many ways, the ultimate feedback mechanism to budgets that have gone by in a nation are the results that elections throw up. The recent election that brought in the NDA government to power is considered a feedback mechanism of high import as well. An election measures the mood of the nation. It actually helps the government at the Centre and states measure what has worked and what has not. When you sit in government and rule, you sit too close to the book to read it well enough. You take the words of your bureaucrats to be truths. Much of the time, these are myopic views of the truth. The truth rests elsewhere.

An election result throws up the truth as viewed by the common man. An election corrects that shortsightedness. It brings to the fore issues at the core. It throws up people’s sentiments. The election gone by has done just that. A savvy government will always read it and heed it. Expect a lot of this reading to translate into positive action for the years ahead in Modi’s third tenure.

This is a big opportunity that has been given to Prime Minister Modi, and knowing his sense of reading the pulse of the people, expect change. Possibly big change even. While some if it may come through the exhortations of the Budget ahead, many will roll out as pieces of corrective and preemptive action for the nation to experience and appreciate. My expectation from this Budget is big. Very big, but hopefully not too big.

I am really looking at positive action that goes beyond the task of a pen-pushing set of moves. I am looking forward to a complete change of philosophy in the Budget ahead as well. For one, being hooked to GDP growth is possibly a very wrong thing to do. The Budget, and indeed every act of governance in the years ahead, needs to listen and act on the needs and wants of the poor, the distanced and the deprived more.

There just might be a need to look at the very institutions tasked to take care of the needs of the poor. Poor-focused institutions need to be led by the poor-driven. Not by the rich-led. Institutions that take care of the malnourished must be led by the malnourished.

The obese must not lead these organisations. Planning organisations, financial institutions and implementation wings need to be more connected to the real-poor rather than the pseudo-poor. Just as the ‘welfare state’ is a thought, the ‘welfare institution’ needs to be a piece of reality rather than a set of people and organisations playing the part without their skin in the game.

While we as a people who rule are likely to gravitate to be the glitterati as we do better and better in our vocations (politics included), our institutions must not follow the same trajectory. Our state and central governments cannot afford to be glitterati governments.

Our government institutions of every kind, our banks, our educational institutions, our hospitals and healthcare network, our distribution systems, our MNCs (of both global and Indian kind), our brands (even the smaller ones) need to retrain themselves to be what they must be. In many ways, it is all about the leadership at these institutions, and what it pushes down as ethos.

While our governments at the centre and states are not really glitterati governments (they can’t afford to be), I am not sure of our many institutions that carry out the work at the grassroots level. We need to infuse the injection of the grassroot and the real into many of them.  That’s a task in itself.

In the leaders of many an institution that govern the poor lies hypocrisy. And this hypocrisy thrives in the personal life of many a politician as well. Let me talk of my own situation. I write all this, and my children are educated overseas in the best of business schools. I write all this, and I equally savour the best of wines from the best origins across the world. I love evening get-togethers with the rich, the famous and the mighty. You cannot really be a socialite by night and a socialist by day. Not anymore. Not in today’s India, with its many demands of the poor, the distanced and the deprived.

I am sure the Budget ahead will bite into many of these realities and correct institutional deliveries of justice to the poor, even as many of us hanker for lower tax rates, higher deductions and subsidies.

(Views are personal)

(harishbijoor@hotmail.com)

Harish Bijoor | Brand Guru & Founder, Harish Bijoor Consults

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