If Pranab Mukherjee thinks he has done a great job in producing the Union Budget 2012-13 he should thank the media—especially the print media—for doing a fantastic job in not only publishing relevant extracts but giving coverage going into pages after pages of textual material complete with charts and graphs, thanks to printing technology.
The fact that Sachin Tendulkar hit his hundredth hundred about the same time may have stolen some of the readers’attention to the budget proposals, but surely the print media did full justice to what are Mukherjee’s eight budget presentation—a record of sorts. The Finance Minister by now surely must be aware that no matter how purposefully proposals are structured, the media will go at him with exemplified cynicism. Editorial writers must invariably show that they are better aware of public needs than all the Finance ministerial staff put together. Equally is the Finance Minister at the mercy of the reporter who has to summarise the budget and of the page maker who provides the heading for the copy.
The Hindu (17th March) for example ran the lead story on the front page under the heading: “Dr Pranab’s Bitter Medicine”. The Times of India told its readers: “Face It: It’s Harsher Than It looks”. Business Line said: “Some cheer, some Pain”. Headlines often reflect a newspaper’s assessment of an event, but let us go to the editorials. Thus, Deccan Herald(March 17) wondered whether Mukherjee’s “gamble will pay off”. It said: “The government will lose Rs 4,500 crore due to income tax concessions while it will gain Rs 45,000 crore by way of increased taxes” and warned that Mukherjee’s projected budget deficit of 5.1 per cent of the GDP” will certainly enhance money supply and add to inflation”. The Times of India damned the budget as a ‘Timid Knock’ that is “no tonic for a slow-down hit economy”. The paper said that “saddled with a high fiscal deficit, the Finance Minister tinkers at the margin, instead of slashing wasteful subsidies”. “The Excise Duty hike” said the paper, “will push up prices of manufactured goods from food items to consumer durables” noting that Overall we remain clueless on when path-breaking tax reforms—GST, DTC, will roll”. Further it said: “Minus commitment to labour reforms, the national manufacturing policy’s job-creating aim, won’t fly…
Budget 2012-13 is no mood-enhancer, let alone game-changer. It plays too safe, having the feel of a tail-ender’s knock in the UPA’s innings”. Not, one is afraid, a highly complimentary comment. The Telegraph (March 17) hit Mukherjee hard on the head. “Given the current political environment” it said, “hardly anyone expected the Union Budget to be anything other than lack-lustre. The Finance Minister has lived up to expectations by formulating a no-frill budget”. Claiming that there are so surprises insofar as the pattern of projected expenditure is concerned, the paper said one black mark against Mukherjee is “his failure to plug the various loopholes which allow some companies to drastically lower their tax bill”. The paper, however had at least one good word to say about the budget, and that was in regard to service tax. Of this it said that “since services are the fastest growing sector of the economy, the increased coverage of the service tax will contribute to much-needed tax buoyancy”.
The Asian Age (March 17) made it clear that “Mukherjee has tried to act cautiously and not been as pro-active as expected, possibly due to global economic weaknesses, as well as domestic constraints”. Like a couple of other papers, The Asian Age, too expressed huge disappointment “with the measly hike in the income tax exemption limit to just Rs 2 lakhs a year” and added that “there was almost nothing new in measures to curb black money generation”, saying that “there appears little effort to tap new sources of revenue or try innovative financing”. The editorial heading was “Cautious Budget in Difficult Times”.
The Hindu (March 17) started on a low note. The budget, it said, “seeks to address two primary concerns—the economic slowdown and the unsatisfactory state of government finances—but the means it employs are so cautious, and even seem contradictory, that the chances of success appear slim”. In a full two-column editorial covering a whole range of issues dealt with by the budget, the paper charged the Financé Minister with taking “ more from the tax-payer than what he has given”—interestingly, a common complaint made by practically all newspapers. More, it said, whatever the relief provided by Mukherjee, in some ways “it is undone by the increase in service tax and excise duty”. Most damning, the paper said, is the hike that “will push up the prices of all items of daily consumption and services for the common citizen”.
Hindustan Times (March 17) started by saying that there is “no budging this budget”, but, by and large, it was more sympathetic to Mukherjee saying that “continuity” is the hall-mark of his budget-making, that a host of micro-tuning that has been on since 2009 is again on display this year” and “ the initiatives to unearth black money, widen biometric identification of the poor for eventual cash transfers and spur inclusive growth should dispel the impression of policy paralysis in the Finance Ministry at least”. Mukherjee surely will be happy to learn that according to Hindustan times his “meticulous attention to the minutae of administrative changes to bring the Indian economy closer to its potential has not flagged despite an extremely adverse political environment”. Further it said: Ädd up all the incremental changes over the years and Mr Mukherjee will have left behind an enviable body of work as India’s Finance Minister”.
About the cruelest charge against Mukherjee was made by R Srinivasan, writing his edit-page article in Business Line. According to him “the budget is a throw back to an older pre-reform India where it was an offence to want, a sin to aspire and a crime to consume”. The truth is hardly any paper has been happy with the budget and any praise to it, if any, has been reluctant and only to show that the writer wants to appear to be objective. As an old hand, Mr Mukherjee, no doubt will take everything, both praise and blame, in his stride. But then, what else can he do, given the circumstances he finds himself in?