Mail Today, 2 March 2013
You are Bruce Wiilis. OK, your star days are far behind you. You now act in films called “The Expendables”. You look back at your career and there’s nothing really other than the Die Hard series, and Sixth Sense, whose director has since steadily descended into utter mediocrity, and a walk-on role in Pulp Fiction, which is anyway all about Quentin Tarantino and John Travolta—no one even noticed that you killed Travolta in the film. So you decide to do a film called A Good Day To Die Hard 5, because, really, there’s nothing more to do other than cash in on tired frabnchises.
You are Palaniappan Chidambaram. You have maintained a sterling image as the great reformer. Your 1997 Budget made you the most beloved Finance Minister in history for the Indian TDS-ridden middle class. You can in fact take credit for reversing the tide of the two previous two atrocious Budgets presented by your current boss, Dr Manmohan Singh, which plunged the country into a recession-like situation. So now you have this Die Hard-situation on your hand. Economic growth is slowing, your predecessor, who now lives in Rashtrapati Bhavan, has presented Budget after ruinous Budget that belonged to the 1970s and the early 80s. In the meantime, you were Home Minister, and presided over the worst Maoist violence India has ever seen. And no you have a situation here, but you have the role that you’ve always liked the best, Finance Minister.
The economy’s growth is slowing, and anyway everyone now knows that it’s jobless growth, inflation is high, industrial growth is down, foreign investors aren’t interested any more, the current account deficit is alarming, and credit rating agencies are just waiting to downgrade you. Plus, this is the last Budget before the next Lok Sabha elections, and that lady out there is more socialist than her mother-in-law and has no other aim than to be stay in power by buying votes. Forget about the Prime Minister. He is a hologram (I watched the Budget with a buch of kids who are going to be practicing journalists in a few months from now. Whenever the Prime Minister was shown on TV, there was a burst of laughter. I am not joking.).
So you presented a Budget. Like Bruce Willis, I am sure, you crawled through air-conditioning vents and dirtied your singlet. But why was there nothing in the Budget that indicated any vision, any long-term perspective, any hint at policy? Even your election-aimed populism was a bunch of lies and lame promises. You increased expenditure on various social sector schemes, but that increase was over Revised Estimates (RE), not last year’s Budget Estimates (BE), and you have (quite rightly), cut government spending dramatically in your six months as PM, so the REs are actually Rs 63,000 crores below the BEs! You weren’t spending much more, really! You were just pretending!
And even this much money which you have promised to spend, where is that money going to come from? You have not raised tax rates by any significant amount, so you are actually banking on the GDP rising by at least 7 to 8 per cent in the coming fiscal year. And there’s nothing in the Budget you have presented that encourages growth in any way! The stockmarkets, which have always loved you—and you have always focused on getting the Sensex to rise with your Budget—the stockmarkets have unambiguously told you what they think of your poorly worked out exercise.
Yes, it’s poorly worked out, because your arithmetic is obviously fudged. How did you expect that that won’t get noticed? Of course, your cleverness has never been in doubt. But this time around, you may have been too clever by half. You have my sympathies of course. You had too many constituencies to please. Too many objectives.
Pretending to present a populist budget was the most obvious one. But you also wanted to please Nitish Kumar, and agreed to redefine “backward areas” (a nod to Nitish Kumar’s demand for “special state status” for Bihar). You even pandered to Mamata Banerjee, and in the very first paragraph of your Budget speech, made a veiled reference to the Gujarat model of development. Narendra Modi’s speech at the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi last month seemed to have had a greater effect on your government than we imagined.
So, the Modi impact on the Budget is vague talk about vocational training and skill development for the youth. And meaningless promises about women’s security, and a hilarious proposal for an all-women’s bank. What are the objectives, the goals of a Rs 1,000-crore Nirbhaya Fund? Why do we need an all-women bank? A poor man and a poor woman has equal chance of getting a bank account opened (whichis, very low, and may Aadhar flourish and change the situation). Also, banking is one of the few industries where women have done marvelously! At least three of the 10 most respected bankers in the country have XX chromosomes! This sort of thing is ridiculous, and only makes sense when you think of a certain Chief Minister who came to Delhi and charmed the hell out of everyone. Is this what we should be wasting our money on?
To be fair, I fell asleep a few times while Mr Chidambaram droned on. For the first time in his distinguished career, he matched the sheer boringness of other Finance Ministers who have subjected us to this unavoidable annual exercise that draws us lemmings to the television screen. He even quoted from Thiruvalluvar. Give us a break, man!
And the fudged maths? Chidambaram is a win-win situation. It won’t matter whether his maths fail or not. The elections will happen, and if the Budget projections work out, great! If they don’t, no one will be noticing, by the time the next Budget comes round, even if it’s presented by him again. Bruce Willis has again got by—the simple truth is: never overestimate your audience’s intelligence.