The 2015 BUDGET: A Veritable Thomson and Thompson Act

Published: Wed, 03/04/2015 - 07:34 Updated: Tue, 03/10/2015 - 08:25

Was it Jaitley’s budget or Modi's?
Harish Khare Delhi

During the course of the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the London-headquartered Economist magazine was not impressed by Narendra Modi's campaign rhetoric. Unlike India's major newspapers, the Economist clearly saw in Modi's stump speeches a deliberate invocation of Hindu-Muslim animosity.

It was a serious indictment from a serious publication.  Modi's image handlers were smart enough to realize the need for immediate intervention to control the damage. They tapped sober and suave Arun Jaitley, perhaps the only man in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) stable who carried some credibility with the global media.

At the time, Jaitley enthusiastically went to bat for Mr. Modi. He contemptuously dismissed the London publication with a damning, deadly tweet: “Thankfully, the Economist does not vote. Indians do.”

Now, however, Jaitley borrows the same publication’s invocation of India’s “chance to fly” as the theme song of his first full budget. But to paraphrase the finance minister's previous quip, the Economist does not run India’s economy; Indian leaders do and they may not be as bright as the London weekly wishes them to be.

Was it Jaitley’s budget or Modi's?

There can be no easy or honest answer. In recent years. Jaitley has made a considered choice to be the whitewash man who explained, rationalised, justified and, if need be, glorified Modi’s steps and missteps. So by the time he got around to presenting the 2015 budget, he was compelled to use it to douse a rising wave of Modi-skepticism.

There was some urgency to this task. The Delhi Assembly election had already confirmed that Modi had lost his sheen. The self-appointed, pretentious new master of the universe was being mocked for his vanities and inanities. It was up to Jaitley to restore some luster to the prime minister’s image.

If the UPA’s management of the economy had become hostage to its weak hold on the government, it was now up to Jaitley to demonstrate how he proposed to put to good use the new government’s strength and espoused political will.

A budget is more than an accountant’s balance-sheet or a tally of revenues and expenditures. It is a statement of a government’s preferences in political economy – of which of the various interest groups competing for its attention it favors, or, more simply, who will gain at whose expense.  And for Jaitley, that meant making good on some of the promises made by his party during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

While Modi garnered votes from almost all segments of the electorate in that election, his main supporters were big business and the Hindu right. And because the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) had already begun to behave as though the government owed its existence entirely to them, Jaitley's primary agenda was to reassure big business of the new prime minister’s inclinations.

Modi does not have the luxury of distancing himself from the RSS, because he will need to continue to draw on the support of their members. Yet he has to keep asserting that he remains committed to the Constitution of India, and work overtime to ensure that these fringe-groups do not disrupt social harmony so much as to alienate his backers from industry.

It was India's big corporations, after all, that filled the party's coffers for what has rightly been called the most expensive election in the history of independent India, allowing Modi to outspend his rivals by a huge margin.

Not for nothing, then, the Modi government’s first full budget has been dubbed as “pro-corporate”. 

Two days before he presented the budget, the honorable finance minister was found decrying the tendency to decry the corporate houses as profit seekers. A day later, the prime minister permitted himself the luxury of mocking the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) – though he stopped short of cutting its funding.  Perhaps this Thomson-and-Thompson juggalbandi between the prime minister and his finance minister was meant to convey a very touchy ideological fellow-feeling towards the chambers of commerce.

Do the corporate leaders reciprocate this fellow-feeling after the budget?  Do they feel that Modi is another incarnation of Margaret Thatcher who will soon dismantle the “social welfare” programs so ill-advisedly put in place by the Manmohan Singh government just to please Sonia Gandhi? Does the Corporate crowd smell a revolution around the corner?

If so, the Modi-Jaitley budget has certainly postponed firing the first shot. Many corporate leaders could not resist hiding their sense of disappointment.  The jury’s verdict is out and unanimous: there are no “big bang” reforms. Certainly, 2015 is by no means another 1991.   The game has not changed.

But corporate India had brazenly put all its eggs in the Modi basket. It now has no option but to pretend that the Modi-Jaitley incrementalism is indeed a revolutionary movement forward.

Things are worse for the presumably vast middle class. It was the much-touted “aspirational” Indian who was tricked into voting for Modi, who was meant to make all those dreams come true. yet the poor fellow has now been told that he will have to wait a bit longer for 'acche din'. For now he will have to find solace in Modi’s gift for event-management.

If the corporate leaders are disappointed, they have desperately ferreted out a silver lining. Meanwhile the middle-class cheerleaders have chosen to go along with the charade. Perhaps they believe that sustained applause may force the new, mediocre regime to raise its game.