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Oont Kay Mihn Mey Jeera

Mala Jay

Listening to the stop-gap Finance Minister’s rousing, non-stop pep-talk in Parliament on Friday felt like being transported to a state of euphoria. 

For a full 110 minutes,  the spirits of the nation were uplifted -  everything is fine,  India is on track to becoming a ten trillion dollar economy,  small farmers  will soon be rich on Rs 16 a day,  fisher-folk will get a new department with a thousand-crore outlay,  humble housewives will get one free cooking gas cylinder and as many toilets as the family needs,  rag-pickers in garbage dumps can retire in luxury at the age of 60 provided they cough up 100 rupees a month from now on,  six hundred thousand digital villages will dot the rural landscape before long,  women’s development will henceforth metamorphose into women-led development,  the army of unemployed youth will transform into self-employed soldiers of the Mudra battalion, a rashtriya gokul aayog will honour and protect even the bovine population. 

What more can anybody yearn for? Piyush Goyal’s paean of praise for his government and his abiding faith in the ten-directional vision of his Leader were beautifully balanced with his touching empathy with nomadic and non-nomadic tribes on the margins of civilization and his bountiful tax-rebates for the toiling classes.  

It was enough to make one weep - in self-pity and gratitude and sheer ecstasy.   Finally, here was a Finance Minister with his finger on the pulse of a nation in deep distress.  Here was a Budget speech that took care of the past, present and distant future.   Here was a selfless government accountant who was ready to sacrifice revenue, shrug off the constraints of mundane matters like caps on fiscal deficits and open his purse strings with a generosity not witnessed since the days of Chandragupta Maurya.

All that Goyal and his Leader wanted in return for all the largesse and liberality were votes and chants.  Votes for the BJP in the upcoming elections and chants of ‘Modi, Modi, Modi’ - a sample rendition of which was heard in the hallowed Lok Sabha chamber for a full two minutes during the Budget speech. 

As usually happens when one is on a mindless high, it takes only a moment of reflection to come down with a thud.  Reality returns.  Realization dawns.  It is all make-believe.   This is just an Interim Budget speech.  Merely a Vote on Account on the eve of elections, to authorize the Exchequer to keep the government going for the months of May, June and July. 

Just another bunch of pre-election promises.  By a nervous and guilt-ridden government which spent five years of its tenure pandering to the suited-booted business lobby and impoverishing the common people with a needless note-bandi,  now belatedly posing as the messiah of the unwashed masses in the hope of clinging on to power for another five years.  

So desperate to please that even the math doesn’t add up.  The dole to marginal land-owning farmers leaves a whole range of rural poor out of the radar - tenant-farmers, agricultural workers, landless labourers, poor peasants in allied rural occupations, et al.   

There is clearly a parallax error in Piyush Goyal’s calculations somewhere.  The Rs. 75,000 crore outlay for 2019-20 does not exist - the current outgoing bunch of Lok Sabha MPs do not have the power to allocate that sum, which only the newly-elected representatives of the next House can. 

That apart, the government’s sudden show of concern for rural distress and its attempt at populism in the time of elections has imperiled its oft-professed commitment to fiscal discipline.  Already, the stop-gap Finance Minister is sounding almost casual while referring to the fiscal deficit being breached. 

Foreign investors and even the domestic corporate lobby are not amused.  An indication of this is the rather tersely-worded reaction of global rating agency Moody's reaction to the welfare-heavy elements of the Interim Budget. 

Terming the Modi government’s failure to meet fiscal deficit target for four consecutive years as a big "Credit Negative", Moody's went even further -  by expressing doubt about whether even the 3.4 per cent fiscal gap for 2019-20 that Goyal mentioned is achievable. 

India Inc. too has barely concealed its ire that no new ideas to boost Revenues has been spelt out whereas a host of giveaways entailing higher Expenditure have been announced.  “Our reading is that the next government will face challenges meeting even the 3.4 per cent target in March 2020. This does not bode well for fiscal consolidation and financial stability”.

This is nothing short of an indictment and a reprimand.  Suited-booted captains of industry normally refrain from such straight talk.  But their words of warning are not without basis. 

Pre-election populist promises are all very well to entice voters, but it makes the task of bringing a wobbly economy back on keel after the elections all the more difficult.   Especially when, despite the rosy picture that Piyush Goyal painted during his exhilarating speech in Parliament, the ground realities are already grim.    

What will be the state of the economy three months from now? Will the next government inherit an unmanageable ship tethering on the edge of a cliff?

Look what they’ve done to our land.  Millions without jobs, and they talk of sellig pakodas and driving Uber cabs.  Farmers in deep distress and they offer sixteen rupees a day.  There’s a saying in Hindi – Oont Kay Muhn Mey Jeera.  

Sometimes it’s okay to feel like crying for the country. There is no shame in sorrow. It is not a sin to be worried, very worried.  Or even afraid.    

Frontier
Feb 2, 2018


Mala Jay [email protected]

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