All eyes on Nirmala Sitharaman

Richa Mishra | Updated on June 29, 2019 Published on June 28, 2019

The chair goes to..Few saw Sitharaman — who was in charge of commerce and defence during the first Narendra Modi-led government — as a successor to Arun Jaitley   -  sandeep saxena

Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget is likely to have the right mix of economics and social issues

There’s a buzz in North Block, where the finance minister sits. Will 59-year-old Nirmala Sitharaman float like a butterfly and sting like a bee to ensure a healthy economy as she sets out to present her maiden Union Budget next week?

On May 29, when Arun Jaitley announced that he would not take any official position in the new government because of health concerns, he left vacant a key portfolio — that of finance and corporate affairs. No sooner had Jaitley made his decision public, than there was speculation on his possible successors. Few thought it would be Sitharaman; she herself was overcome with emotion as she took office last month.

She is being touted as the first full-time woman finance minister (Indira Gandhi held the post when she was Prime Minister). But this doesn’t enthuse everybody. “How does it matter if we have a woman finance minister? What matters is how good is the policy that would shape our economy,” says a first-time voter who is soon going to be a job seeker.

Though Sitharaman is not new to holding important portfolios — she was in charge of commerce and then defence during the first stint of the Narendra Modi-led government — this is markedly different. She now has to step into the shoes of the likes of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Pranab Mukherjee, Yashwant Sinha, and Jaitley, to name a few.

So, all eyes are on her, as the country gets ready for the Budget to be unveiled on July 5. Will she, as the ode to Muhammed Ali, the champion boxer, goes, float and sting?

Some in the business sector are optimistic. “She is a good listener and is also aware of the constraints she has, given today’s economic conditions. But she is a tough lady. One definitely cannot walk over her. Give her time and space and she will deliver,” says an industrialist who recently interacted with her.

Equally optimistic is Praveen Khandewal, national secretary general, Confederation of All India Traders. “She does her homework on the subject of discussion and is always quick to ask for remedial measures. She seems committed to bringing about an overall change in the economic system and achieve the targets set by the Prime Minister,” he says.

What will influence the economist in Sitharaman — politics or socio-economic issues? Will her Budget touch upon women’s issues or focus on the challenges of the economy — jobs, health, farm distress, middle-class demands, fiscal deficit, concerns of small and medium traders? Will she push for promoting digital economy? And how much of her Budget will be influenced by the concerns of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the outfit that her Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) owes allegiance to?

Those who have participated in her pre-Budget meetings say that instead of depending heavily on officers, she prefers to listen to people while, at the same time, going by the rule book. She is looking at ways to further strengthen the ease of doing business in India, and simplify laws and procedures.

Most economists and analysts believe that her Budget will have the right mix of economic and social issues. “We expect her to keep in mind the last man in the queue,” says Ashwani Mahajan, national co-convener of the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, an RSS affiliate. “She is open and responsive to feedback and ideas,” adds Yamini Aiyar, president and CEO of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank.

They also point out that she dealt with many challenges when she headed commerce and defence.

“She is known to be an efficient work-hard minister,” says Manisha Priyam, professor at the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, a research institute under the ministry of human resource development. “Her first priority will be fixing the economy — its sluggish growth rates, and advancing government revenues. Rather than sops for women, it is efficiency that is both her challenge and expectation.”

As a woman finance minister, the expectation from her is pragmatism and efficiency — and that she will do the job better than all the men who were contending for it, Priyam states. “That she has the continued support of the Prime Minister for this critical role puts a lot of expectations and pressure on her.”

Aiyar, who attended one of the pre-Budget meetings with Sitharaman, believes that the government will give a “big push” to spread PM-KISAN, a scheme for small and marginal farmers, and strengthen the BJP’s agenda of enhancing rural infrastructure, housing for all and so on. The focus will be on issues related to water supply, particularly piped water, reducing the number of schemes (currently estimated at nearly 500) and reforming scheme design to enhance flexibility at the state government level.

“I hope there will be a focus on education, especially after the draft National Education Policy, and a serious overhaul of the Samagra Sikhsha (an integrated scheme for school education) will be considered,” Aiyar adds.

Priyam agrees that expectations are high from Modi 2.0’s first Budget.

“Though the Budget is merely a statement of the government’s income and expenditure, the citizenry will look at it as a statement of Modinomics — of what he wants to do now that he has unencumbered parliamentary support. In the economy, the first job is to kick-start growth and increase government revenues. Whether this is done by a long-term vision plan or immediate fixes needs to be seen,” she says.

Most people would want a thrust on the job front, she adds. It has to be seen, she points out, how popular government schemes such as Ujjwala (for LPG connections), toilets, Mudra loans and PMAY (for affordable housing) will carry on.

“In other words, how to balance an election-oriented government’s populism with the rationality of a new government on growth and performance,” Priyam says.

The task is spelled out for her. But how much of a free hand Sitharaman will be given remains to be seen.

Richa Mishra

Published on June 28, 2019
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