For decades the hoary tradition of presentation of Government of India’s annual statement of accounts aka Budget has been marked by a predictable trail of events. It is customary for the ruling regimes to ratchet the rhetoric of intent and for its spin-doctors to re-present allocations as outcomes. The parties in the opposition characteristically find much wrong with the budget to whine and wail about and present a litany of lament as their contribution to the cause.
Must this be so? Acquisition of political attention and electoral allegiance in a democracy ought to be through a contest of ideas, not just a high-decibel duel. Countries following the Westminster form of governance usually form a shadow cabinet to present alternate views and challenge the reigning regime. India’s national and regional parties riveted by high command culture have shied away from this onus. It is true that arguments scaffold political interests of the people whom parties profess to serve. But surely, politics cannot be an argument industry.
Why can’t, rather why don’t the parties in opposition present a competing alternative vision, or a ‘shadow’ budget? The state of the economy is not unknown — the parties in the opposition have access to data and more can be sought. For instance by January, much of what needs to be known is known — RBI data on state budgets, extent of borrowings of Centre and States, the trend in revenue collections, frequency indicators on output and exports. Many of the parties in the opposition are in power in the states, and the GST Council has a bird’s eye view of performance across sectors.
Indeed, Budget 2021 is primed for a perfect segue into a summer of hectic politics. As five states —Assam, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Kerala and West Bengal — head into elections, the context affords the opposition parties to migrate from the tired tedium of what was not done to a new medium and evangelise what can be done. For months the opposition has charged the government with not doing enough to address the consequences unleashed by the Covid19 pandemic. A shadow Budget affords parties an opportunity to showcase their ideas on how to right the wrongs and resolve the issues of lives and livelihoods.
Responsible politics entails articulation of vision and reason. The construct of ‘shadow’ budget would oblige the parties to move away from routine robotic rabble rousing and assign rationale on suggested actions and force a reasoned political discourse on choices and decision. It will also compel the ruling regime to explain the course of action with robust rationale. For example, the calls to expand relief, pump prime the economy is understandable. But there is also the cost of contending compulsions such as the need to finance higher defence spending, outlay of vaccinations, recapitalisation of banks, payment of stranded dues parked in PSEs. Already the gap between expenditure and income has widened — estimates place consolidated fiscal deficit at around 14 per cent of the GDP and that of the Centre alone at over 7 per cent of GDP. The debate is less about what and more about how much can be done and how it could be funded.
It would be interesting and instructive to see how parties think about balancing the budget — that is, what could be the appropriate level of deficit, of borrowings and how to stimulate growth to sustain debt and deficit. It follows that the parties should also suggest how the government could raise the necessary resources. What would be the prescription for raising moolah include — a tax on the wealth of dollar billionaires, a one-time or phased Covid19 surcharge, suggest disinvestment of public sector banks, listing of LIC, monetisation of land, privatisation of high-speed rail routes or any other avenues?
A shadow budget could enable parties to answer many questions and outline the approach to sectoral challenges. For instance, the pandemic has exposed the decay in the health care system. Delivery of health care requires expansion of funding and capacity. Should this be through centrally sponsored schemes, or funding and devolution of powers to panchayats and municipal bodies? The shutdown of schools has impacted millions of students. Could there be a DBT for funding student access to remote learning? The collapse of businesses in the face-to-face sectors has led to job losses in urban India. Should there be a jobs guarantee scheme for urban unemployed? The agitation by farmers has revived focus on agriculture. Can policies and funding of procurement and subsidies be rejigged?
The crux is whether the parties have a playbook for the future. Revival and recovery of the economy will depend on how India prepares for emerging challenges unleashed by disruptions. The world is reconfiguring business models and supply chains following the pandemic. A lot will depend on how India can leverage the scale of its domestic market — redesign allocation of capital, reconfigure land use and reform labour laws. Would parties underwrite necessary reforms?
India’s young populace is tiring of the harp orchestra — the din of harping on failings is lethargic politics. In the age of platformication, parties need to install smart politics. The political economy of the world’s largest democracy hosting over a billion aspirations deserves choice, a plurality of competing ideas on issues of lives and livelihoods.
Shankka r aiyAr
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar:
A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit
Revolution, and Accidental India