The budget is really just an exercise in balancing books, but we have heroic expectations of it. We want it to be given to us as a speech. We may or may not get stirring rhetoric, but we do want it to provide definitive directions in economic policy, to be a statement of intent and assertion of economic philosophy. Today's budget fell woefully short on that.
The big game-changing initiative towards fiscal consolidation is the GST (Goods and Services Tax). It's a complex exercise involving state and central legislation, and we all know that it can't arrive through a speech. But we have heard loosey-goosey "we hope" sort of statements on GST for five budgets running. We expected something very concrete from a government which has a 56-inch chest.
The investor community also expected a stronger statement, in fact a reversal announcement, on the perverse actions of retrospective taxation which so hurt India as a destination last year. But here too, there was just a timid squeak about setting up a committee.
Some of the other bold stuff on the financial sector which could have been announced but wasn't--dilution of government stake in banks, consolidation of the stakes and actions on the NPA (non-performing assets) crisis.
The previous budget had very obviously used cute accounting to push forward expenditure into the current year. This was an opportunity for Mr Jaitley to expose the unrealistic starting fiscal deficit number, and also reset the forward numbers using honest accounting, counting contingent liabilities and maybe even shifting from cash to accrual accounting. Not sure why he stepped back here as well.
On expenditure reduction, something specific could have been announced, rather than just the set-up of a committee. Tax growth and disinvestment assumptions look extremely aggressive. Come Budget 2015, Mr Jaitley will be forced to resort to exactly the same accounting tricks that his predecessors invented.
Overall, this was real "same old same old" stuff. Eyes glazed over and budget-watchers started to suppress yawns as the tiresome rote of schemes started, named this time after Sangh stalwarts instead of the Gandhi family.
Before preparing his budget speech, Arun Jaitley would have done well to read a pamphlet called 'What Is to be Done' that Lenin wrote. Not for the content, but for its clear-headed narration of how they, the Bolsheviks, should go about achieving their goal. Today was a missed opportunity for the NDA to sketch a similar roadmap.
(Gautam Gode is co-founder and MD of Samara Capital. The views expressed are personal.)