Much against all expectation, and defying precedent, Nirmala Sitharaman’s sixth consecutive Budget and the BJP’s second pre-election interim Budget, has resisted the temptation to go all populist. This is a clear break from the past.

For virtually all budgets since 1970, especially those presented in an election year, have dripped with dole outs to different sections of the voting public. This one has ignored it.

There are two ways of interpreting this. One is to say that the deficiency, if it can be called that, will be made up in July when the full Budget is presented. But that seems unlikely as there’s no major election in the offing.

The other way of interpreting it is that the BJP no longer needs to bribe the voters with economic promises because it has substituted religion for it. If Budget handouts were the opium of the masses till now, we have gone back to what Karl Marx had said, “religion is the opium of the masses.”

It’s also important to note that this interim Budget has chosen to view the population in terms of very large economic groups: women, farmers, youth and the absolute poor. This isn’t new but it’s after a long time that the focus is so sharp.

Interestingly, Sitharaman has pointedly ignored the business community and the investing classes. She barely mentioned them. Perhaps that too is reserved for the full Budget in July.

Budget as a WMD

The electoral weaponising of the Budget began in 1970 when, presenting her first and only Budget, Indira Gandhi dropped the equivalent of a freebie atom bomb. This became the disk operating system of India’s future political economy.

This is what she said. It’s worth quoting in full because most budgets since then have done a cut-and-paste job of this. The italics have been added as the sentence underlined the socialist intent of the government.

“The provision of adequate employment opportunities is not just a welfare measure. It is a necessary part of the strategy of development in a poor country which can ill-afford to keep any resources unutilised or under-utilised…Encouragement to small enterprises and to new entrepreneurs is vital to build up managerial and entrepreneurial talent … Without some restraint on urban land values and individual ownership of urban property, we cannot adequately develop housing and other amenities required to wrest the maximum benefits from the vast productive investments already made in our overcrowded towns and cities…. a balance has to be struck between outlays which may be immediately productive and those which are essential to create and sustain a social and political framework which is conducive to growth in the long run…there is no alternative but to tread a difficult but determined course…If the requirements of growth are urgent, so is the need for some selective measures of social welfare. The fiscal system has also to serve the ends of greater equality of incomes, consumption and wealth, irrespective of any immediate need for resources. At the same time, the needs of those sectors of the economy which require private initiative and investment must also be kept in mind in the interest of growth of the economy as a whole. I can only hope that the proposals I have just presented steer clear of the opposite dangers of venturing too little or attempting too much.’

It is true that the case for the pre-1945 balanced budgets had been greatly weakened by the Keynesian investment multiplier theory.

But that theory assumed that the government would invest for growth, not distribute tax revenues for electoral gains.

This workman-like approach to a vote on account — it has always been a subterfuge to call it a Budget, interim or otherwise — must be welcomed. It presages a formal and much overdue reversion to what’s been the hallmark of the BJP government since 2014, namely, sensible budgeting at the micro level and fiscal conservatism at the macro.