Rarely has Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of the Indian National Congress, made an observation that has not invited jeers, or quipped to betray a good sense of humour. As a one-off case, his critique of Budget 2014-15 was bang on: “It is just a laundry list of Rs 100 crore proposals.” Former Finance Minister P Chidambaram rubbed it in harder without using a harsh word: “Welcome to the real world,” he told his successor Arun Jaitley via media. Should Chidambaram’s smirk send this message to zealous activists and Opposition leaders alike that, once you are in government, tweaking with convention is the maximum you can do? A much-needed, economically sound Railways Budget two days ago by DV Sadananda Gowda had suggested otherwise. If PV Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh’s 1991-92-93 Budgets are remembered for dealing blows to the licence-quota raj, the present finance minister made no move to end the inspector raj by easing off regulations that empower extortionist public servants, even as his speech covered at length the need for dispute resolution and freedom from litigation. Take aside the Rs 1,000 crore plus projects announced that clearly carry Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s signature, as his election speeches would bear out, and you indeed have 28 ‘intentions’ worth Rs 100 crore each, of which most that are meant to apply across this huge country are bound to fail, with the few that are meant to create institutions or invite PPP likely to pass. Imagine entrepreneurship in about 6 lakh villages for Rs 100 crore! On the other hand, Rs 200 crore for a scheme through IFCI to make SCs enter the neo-middle class might work because, here, there is an effort to create an institution. Again, Rs 100 crore will not be enough for beti bachao, beti padhao across the country, but will be adequate for the National Industrial Corridor Authority in Pune. Overall, with the plethora of schemes worth equal allocations, the political error is of creating the impression of a directionless government. Among projects that got the mercy of thousands of crores, ‘smart’ cities, renewed rural development, Uma Bharti’s mission to save the Ganga, housing for all by 2022 etc are Modi’s election promises and typical roadmaps. Effort to uplift the traditionally underprivileged will help in the ruling party’s image makeover. One bold move is the resolve to resettle Kashmiri Pandits in their native Valley, though the UPA had allocated a good sum for the purpose, too. For, people know concern for Hindus, even where they are the minority, does not suit Congress politics.
Out of the substantial allocations, the Keynesian capital investment by PSUs, expenditure on women and children, education, roads etc are merely incremental improvements upon schemes begun by the UPA, which are necessary but not the ruling party’s brainchildren. Then, there is the hypocrisy called MGNREGA. No matter how hard this government tries, can work always be available for a given set of workers for 100 days a year? Not all infrastructure development will take place in one corner of the country, and then we will have ridiculous, state-created jobs to honour the Act. The irony is, the BJP knows this pet initiative of Sonia Gandhi is economically harebrained. Moving along as listlessly, no effort was made to better the Congress’s food security provisions. And these are all projects the BJP critiqued vehemently while it was the chief Opposition party. Of course, everything that the Congress-led government did can be done better, but does the BJP want to be identified by its voters as a ‘better Congress’? Among the BJP’s votaries, the middle class constitutes the core, which has been given a marginal relief in taxes. This defies the finance minister’s own conviction that lies in higher exemptions. If he plans to raise it gradually, he should know the declining value of money will get the better of it. Since this government has faith in the PPP model, revenue loss because of tax relief and exemptions isn’t a good excuse. As no categorical assurance was given in the case of retrospective taxes either, even the Sensex, pooh-poohed by leftists as the BJP’s index of public happiness, sank by 72 points yesterday. The economists in television studios said the speech appeared to have been prepared by some languorous bureaucrat, and not a visionary parliamentarian, which they would take time to decipher. Finally, shouldn’t there have been at least one constituency that the finance minister could please (other than his social media fans)?
Jaitley, the thorough gentleman who is saddled with the ill-repute of being a member of the Delhi Club — signifying a Nehruvian bourgeois uninhibited to hobnob with whosoever is in power — has only lent credence to the allegation by doing worse than continuing with every UPA programme; he has actually proposed to fund them even more! After the embarrassment of his Defence Ministry indicting colleague Gen VK Singh through an affidavit submitted in the court, and after he refused to divulge the whole of the Henderson-Brooks report that provides valuable insights into the 1962 war with China, Jaitley badly needed a Budget that would project him as a right wing economist, if not a right wing politician. More than any political commentator, he has failed himself by not being able to belie the notion. An astute politician, though not a mass leader, he — along with Ananth Kumar and Venkaiah Naidu — had made the right move of breaking free of LK Advani’s D-4 mould at an opportune time, leaving Sushma Swaraj as the sole sulking member of the quartet. The sooner he shuns the Congress legacy and dons Modi’s son-of-the-soil mantle, the better it will be for his career and the country’s economy.