This, my friend, is the real size of the Budget briefcase: Scene from Don (1978)
For reasons that have to do with my upbringing, I’ve always found the annual budget to be an overrated exercise. I mean, I know how important it is to conduct the nation’s book-keeping and announce its results to the nation’s shareholders and make plans of what it is to be done to the existing kitty public. But frankly, is the annual budget, especially the ritual of the finance minister addressing Parliament, so exciting? Newspapers and television panels crawl with hard data and figures intended to make everyone a master chartered accountant for two days — on Budget Day itself courtesy television and the next day through the print media.
Announcements made on Budget Day not only allow number-crunching economists to appear sexy for a couple of days, but they also provide a different kind of fodder for chit-chat at dinners and parties during the weekend that follows the daard-e-fisco. Whether it be populist tax breaks or squeezing the lemon for revenues or putting public money where the government’s mouth is, it becomes the real-world version of a philosophers’ ball. The ordinary chap — by which I mean anyone who isn’t P Chidambaram, M Singh, MS Ahluwalia or B(iz) Journalist — just wants to know whether what he usually buys or plans to buy costs less or more. He will also be healthily curious to find out whether his share of paying for the upkeep of the Corporation in the form of taxes has gone up, stayed the same or gone down.
The ‘Does this really get us out of the 5% growth trap?’ question sounds manly. But let’s face it, even if you’re Amartya Sen and you know it won’t, what are you going to do about it? Cutting subsidies in fuel or in the agriculture sector will be countered by a large noise — not from Keynesians or from Hayekists or grouchy Marxists but from politicians whose fundamental formula, H=p<p* (where H is all-round happiness, p is announced prices of products and commodities, and p* is current prices of products and commodities) is all that matters. The job of the government, subsequent to this ritualistic post-budget qawwali, is to either stand firm or to get loose (in technical terminology, this is called ‘rollback’). So, essentially, politics carries the nation’s business interests of the day.
There are, however, a few things about the budget that have a charming Gayatri mantra-azaan quality about them. And that’s the never-changing rituals involved. A Vatican pontiff couldn’t do a better job of comforting the masses that within change there is continuity. The finance minister with his maroon briefcase being photo-opped at the stairs of the Parliament in a less salacious version of the Oscars; in all the sobriety of the budget speech itself, a sprinkling of wit-grenades countering the mandatory Sanskrit sloka or Urdu shayari (Tagore’s ‘Where the mind is without fear/ and the head is held high’ being more than a bit overplayed down the years in and out of budget speeches); the thumping of hands on tables and the drowning out of the minister’s voice that can remind many of how long it’s been since one’s visited the local zoo; the ‘exclusive’ interviews the finance minister in his magnanimity gives to various channels and publications after the sacred duty has been performed — these can bring happy tears to the eyes of...
...the budget junkie. Of which I’m not too sure how many there are in the marketplace called India, never mind in the scattered haats called Bharat. I’m still not convinced that Budget 2013 deserved the kind of rapt attention that many of us gave it. Perhaps the only reason for this is that since 2001, when Yashwant Sinha began announcing the budget at 11 in the morning instead of the earlier British Raj-era practice of announcing it at 5 pm (so that London could pass the budget at noon British time), nothing else of importance is allowed to take place that day. It’s unlikely that Indian politicians will agree to push the Budget speech to, say, 8 pm, a time that has scientifically been found to be when most serious-minded people prefer light entertainment. That would diminish the perception of the parliamentarian’s role in your life.
So the option of the BCCI, with its more-than-5% growth and radiant fiscal health, scheduling an India-Pakistan one-day international every year — with the tagline ‘Bolo, Budget Ya Cricket?’ — on Budget Day could do the needful.
The government of the day benefits by less people interested in what the wags on TV have to say (usually negative things); people realise that the ‘growth vs spending’ talk is less intelligent than it sounds; and as former RBI deputy governor Subir Gokarn wrote in his post-budget piece in Business Standard, “instead of the intense anticipation and scrutiny of the budget, the economy would perhaps be better served by similar attention to what [non-finance] ministries are doing or not doing to deliver on budget announcements”.
Do I hear loud thumping on living-room tables across the country?