Ashok V. Desai
I had modest expectations of this budget for two reasons. First, Arun Jaitley is at least as good a lawyer as P. Chidambaram, for whose intelligence I continue to entertain high respect; and Chidambaram was a consistently lousy finance minister. And second, Jaitley did not have much time to prepare the budget, especially since he is Narendra Modi’s right-hand man and gets pulled into all kinds of extra-curricular affairs. I must admit that my expectations have been exceeded; in fact, I find it a very good budget for the present circumstances.
But a few things are not great about the budget. The fiscal deficit is projected to change very little. This, however, can be justified on the grounds of mixed signals. On the one hand, the current account is running huge deficits; that would have called for fiscal tightening. On the other hand, the growth rate, close to 4 per cent, is low for India; industry in particular is doing pretty badly. That would have called for a fiscal stimulus. One can say that pulled on both sides, the finance minister decided to stay where he was. Second, Congress budgets were known for numerous boondoggles with Sanskrit names ostensibly for the poor, children, widows and such other people worth helping. They were all schemes for making corrupt party men, bureaucrats and traders rich; one only has to look at the assets of election candidates in the past twenty years to see how rich they made them. Jaitley’s budget is also replete with such boondoggles. To mention just a few, there is one to “cover every household by total sanitation”, whatever that might mean, another to “deliver integrated project based infrastructure in rural areas”. Third, the gigantic statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. I am a great admirer of him; I met him for the last time just two months before his death. But a statue of him is of the same order as the elephants erected by Mayavati, only a hundred times more wasteful. Vallabhbhai would have thoroughly disapproved of it. And finally, Jaitley is extremely vague about many of these schemes. Clearly, he has done precisely what Chidambaram did. Every year before the budget, the finance minister is swarmed by opportunists of his party who put up ostensibly philanthropic schemes; for each, he provides fifty or a hundred crores in the budget. But Jaitley did not ask for even minimum details. He was in too much hurry to present the budget; he should have taken another month and done a better job. His good intentions are transparent; everyone would approve of them. But he tells us so little about how he will go about realizing them, that one’s confidence in him is apt to evaporate.