Friday, March 1, 2013

The Union budget - a personal perspective

The Union Budget - the heart beat of an economy. A few stray thoughts and reminiscences.

I remember vividly sitting in the back rows of a packed lecture hall in Chennai a couple of decades ago, waiting for the arrival of Nani A Palkivala , the eminent lawyer, Jurist, ex ambassador to the USA - to deliver his yearly talks on the budget. I had just then read his remarkable book " We, the people". a compendium of his speeches and writings on a wide range of topics of national interest; more importantly : the ones on the yearly Union budget. Nani walked in exactly at 6.30 P.M. A few minutes later, he started speaking extempore. His opening lines still resonate in my ears. Nani began " This is not a budget to make you deliriously happy or to drive you to the verge of suicidal despair. It may be regarded as a good budget in bad times, though it might have ranked as a bad budget in good times ". So he went for nearly two hours; dissecting the budget, unraveling the hidden truths , making sweeping judgments on the state of the economy and its direction, rattling figures that elucidated his reasoning.; touching levels of oratory that a Cicero would have been proud of, Quoting Shakespeare, Milton, Buddha , Blake and Emerson in equal measure and flawless precision, squeezing the two hundred odd pages of the cryptic financial document of its essential juices - all this without a single piece of paper in hand and an authority that bespoke a tremendous sense of conviction, integrity and a life long contemplation on Justice and betterment of our Nation. It was a virtuoso performance,that left the audience gasping and spell bound at the same time. What was earlier considered by most of us as a stale document containing irrelevant facts and figures, started to make a lot of innate sense and meaning . Unfortunately, that was the only time I could hear Nani's masterful exposition on the Budget, because he stopped delivering these lectures an year after that. But he had got me thinking on the right lines.

Since then I have been following the Annual budget speeches , trying to understand the vision of the Government in a holistic manner. The first annual budget was presented by Sir R.K Shanmukham shetty - a business man, controversially chosen by Nehru because of his Pro-British leanings. The irony however is that, the finance minister had to unceremoniously resign shortly after his first budget because of alleged impropriety for harboring preferences for Mill owners in Coimbatore (in which he had a considerable stake). It was an inauspicious beginning to Indian democratic process. For the next forty odd years, the country was enslaved by ridiculous chains of political ,industrial and fiscal oppression in the garb of socialist policies , and none of the Financial budgets were allowed to give free vent to the principle of market economics. It tool the financial acumen of Dr Manmohan singh and the vision of Prime minister PV narishma rao to steer the country from the verge of financial obliteration in 1992, when they presented a radically new approach to the driving the country forward. Where we are today is because of the pivotal turn that we took then.

While we may debate, discuss, argue and expostulate on rates of taxation, investment other benchmarks of a financial budget, it is firm opinion that Our country needs a more solid strengthening of welfare measures. Let us not forget that the budget that all of us have spent a couple of days fretting and fuming about , hardly touches a vast majority of our population - the agrarian community. In fact, one of the budgetary allocations for establishing storage of grains at Panchayat seems to a be tacit approval for Large supermarkets to engage in futures trading of food grains. We may worry about our cell phone gizmos costing a little more; our restaurant bills making us squirm a little or expensive SUV's eating into our expenses; but let us realize that there is a significant dearth of basic education, Health and hygiene in vast parts of our country, which still remains unfulfilled after decades of independence and high sounding policies. History is a vindication of the fact that wherever there is a fundamental need ,the state has to step in to provide the basic infrastructural services and amenities to the common man, . The Private sector may then pick up the threads left open and probe more imaginative vistas. The industrial revolution in the seventeenth century, which gave birth to the notion of capitalism is also amply illustrative of the fact that unless there is infrastructural support from the government, it is very difficult to bring about a change in the quality of life for all its citizens. It is foolhardiness to suppose the private citizens would pay for something that the government should be rightly doing .

It is equally a fact in any polity ,that a financial budget becomes a mouth piece of the ruling party and its effort to appease its vote banks. Thats perfectly acceptable. But what is not acceptable is the inability or the unwillingness to implement major policy measures. That is the crucial difference between China and us. Our political establishments (ruling or opposition) is more focused on rhetoric and not on the ground realities of making things happen. A few conscientious ministers, who have passion to do things, are publicly ridiculed and pushed to the sidelines. Every single budget over the last decade has held great promises but has failed to ignite the nation. This Union budget has kept the status- quo moving. Anyways, The election year is around the corner and no political party would want to " play dirty" .

I wonder what Nani would have had to say of this budget. Probably, his criticism of the 1989-90 budget would apply . He said then 'There is no policy underlying this budget. It merely bears out the criticism of a perceptive thinker that India loves to indulge in gestures rather than policies and implementation ' . How true this statement rings even after twenty long years?....................

God bless.................

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