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Wednesday, Feb 04, 2004

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A misnomer of a Budget

B. S. Raghavan

If what Mr Jaswant Singh unveiled in Parliament fell flat, he is not to be blamed. It could not have been anything more than this, and all the hype and hoopla about his coming out with spectacular sops was nothing more than frenzied thinking.

ALMOST the only exciting part of the Interim Budget of the Finance Minister, Mr Jaswant Singh, was what preceded its presentation in the form of points of order raised by Messrs Priya Ranjan Das Munshi, Somnath Chatterji and Shivaraj Patil. For more than an hour, the House was rocked by an acrimonious wrangle over two Constitutional issues: The first was whether the present session was the "first session of the year", as mentioned in Article 87 of the Constitution, making it mandatory for the President to address the two Houses jointly, or if it was merely the second part of the winter session; and the second whether there was any provision at all in Constitution for the presentation of an Interim Budget as distinguished from the regular annual Budget, a vote-on-account or supplementary demands.

On both the points, once the Speaker gave his ruling, citing precedents, in favour of the Government, the Opposition quietly gave in and listened to the speech of the Finance Minister without interruption. They might have as well not put up the fight they did to stall the presentation. There was hardly anything of substance other than little bits of information about the fiscal and revenue deficits being kept low at 4.8 per cent and 3.6 per cent respectively of GDP this year and marginally lower in 2004-5.

There was, of course, some permissible patting oneself on the back over low interest and inflation rates, higher tax collections and greater allocations across the board to all the Plan and non-Plan schemes.

The one major announcement was the merging of 50 per cent of the Dearness Allowance with pay in the case of government employees as per the norm laid down by the Fifth Pay Commission. Altogether, a misnomer of a Budget, made soporific by the characteristically monotonous drawl of Mr Jaswant Singh's style of delivery.

If what Mr Jaswant Singh unveiled in Parliament fell flat, he is not to be blamed. It could not have been anything more than this, and all the hype and hoopla about his coming out with spectacular sops was nothing more than frenzied thinking. Mr Jaswant Singh had already dipped into public coffers generously (some estimates put it at Rs 25,000 crore) so that Everyman and his wife can bask in the glow of a pleasurable flow of goodies. The general elections round the corner had only fuelled his zest. This penchant for doing the predictable at election time is shared by governments in all democracies and it will again be unfair to single out Mr Jaswant Singh alone for criticism.

As he rose to speak, Mr Jaswant Singh had reasons to be pleased with himself. In a sense, the nation was reputation-wise at a high point so much so that India is now seen as fulfilling the qualifications of membership of the club of mature, stable and advanced economies and is even slated to assume the third rank after China and the US within a decade or two. The backbone of the polity, the thriving middle-class, was never feeling better, what with the economy emitting a musical hum on all fronts: Agriculture, manufacturing, software, infrastructure, golden quadrilateral, call centres, automobiles, pharmaceuticals, exports, interest rates, inflation, foreign exchange reserve and the sense of confidence and buoyancy in business and industry. In these circumstances, it is not to be wondered at that the Finance Minister was inspired to add to the economic lexicon a new concept which he named the Gross National Contentment to describe the upbeat mood pervading the country.

A steady hand at the wheel alone is, however, not enough to help Indian economy emerge into broad sunlit uplands. Good governance and clean, corruption-free politics, are two key areas which are yet to receive due attention.

These, and completing the reforms agenda and accelerating the tempo of growth, still remain as parts of unfinished business. The credibility of the electoral alliances at various stages of formation will depend upon their sensitivity to these aspects. It is to be seen to what extent this awareness gets reflected in their manifestoes.

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