Dr Jay Dubashi
Our friend Pranab Mukherjee’s budget for 2012-13 is just like the man himself—dull, colour-less and utterly pedestrian. The man obviously has been busy with other more important tasks and had no time for such silly things as budgets, which, like monsoon showers come and go, leaving behind a mass of figures. It is a very ad hoc kind of exercise, a couple of percentage points here and another percentage point there, and you can weave a story round them and hey, presto, you have a budget.
The Singh government is incapable of the kind of intellectual exercise required for planning for such a huge country like ours. And if you do not have a vision, you do not have a budget. Mr Mukherjee has obviously no plan, nor has anybody else in the government. So you have a budget for the sake of budget, which is not only pedestrian but totally forgettable.
Actually, the question we should ask is: Who runs the government in Delhi? Even better, the question should be, is there a government in Delhi? The Prime Minister is rarely seen, except when you see him sitting like a Buddha in the Parliament, with his lips sealed. You do see him on TV once in a while, while talking to a delegation from Turkey or may be Swaziland, and one often wonders whether he knows the difference.
His colleagues are less reticent and do clear their throats in the public from time to time, but they don’t have much time to run the government, as they have other fish to fry. One wonders whether the Prime Minister knows they are there – had he ever met Raja before the 2G scandal blew up? It is a long time, for instance, since we heard from his Foreign Minister, may be because he does not stay long in the country and prefers foreign climes. He flits from Maldova to the Maldives via, of course, New York, which is a much nicer place than New Delhi.
The question, therefore, is, who runs the government? You cannot say nobody, because the government does run. We may not have a proper Railways Minister since Mamata Banerjee took off to Kolkata, but the trains do run, though not always on time. In fact, a railway budget was duly placed before the Parliament, before, that is, the gentleman who replaced Banerjee got into trouble and had to be evacuated from Rail Bhavan.
The Railway Budget was followed by a proper finance budget by a proper Finance Minister who stood up in the Parliament and made a proper budget speech. The proper number of papers and documents were duly handed around. So the question is not who runs the government but how they run it. Have we outsourced the job to some agency in New York or London, where there are agencies specialising in budgets? Or perhaps to the World Bank, which, for years, has been telling us what to do? At one time, the Planning Commission, bless its soul, was taken over by men from the Bank, who did everything for us, until it was decided to hand over the job to International Monetary Fund or IMF. The Fund’s man now sits in Yojana Bhavan and pens all those statements that pour out of the Bhavan, including, of course, the Economic Survey, though nobody reads it.
The Survey, like the budget, is getting thicker and thicker, with more charts than you see in the ICU’s of hospitals in Delhi. If you are suffering from insomnia, get hold of the Survey and you will promptly fall asleep, even before you reach page 2. I have a feeling that most ministers use it as a medicine for insomnia, except perhaps the Prime Minister, who used to write it himself before he became what he became.
The Prime Minister doesn’t do budgets now. He also doesn’t do economic surveys. So what exactly does he do? Nobody seems to know. This year’s budget is almost a copy of last year’s. It has obviously been xeroxed from last year’s documents, with minor changes. Last year, petrol prices did not go up; this year, they will go up, but after the budget. The Finance Minister says the budget will give a fillip to economic growth. He said that last year too. Last year, the Prime Minister had commended the budget and patted the Finance Minister on the back. He did the same thing this year. So what’s new?
Mention budgets to economic experts in the media, particularly electronic media, and they go berserk, like monkeys before the monsoon. You see them everywhere, jumping from one TV channel to another, mouthing their well – rehearsed views, though they are no different from last year’s, or a year before that. They don’t seem to realise that India has got into a rut, there is no government worth the name, and there is no Finance Minister either. Everybody is going through the motions, the economy is about to splutter to a stop, and the government does not really care because it knows it will be thrown out of office two years from now, just as it was thrown out from so many states in the last three or four years. We have a government with a small “g”, just as we have a budget with a small ‘b’. And everything is getting smaller under this government, from GDP growth to employment, from exports to investment, and from the size of the rupee to the size of the pay pocket.
Only the politicians and their loot is getting bigger. Almost every politician is now richer than he ever was, and nearly all of them are crore-patis. They are doubling their pockets every two or three years, though their only income is supposed to be what they get as salaries. Where does the cash come from? We expected the Finance Minister to say something about this in the budget, but he said nothing. One politician from the ruling party is said to be worth Rs 45,000 crore which makes him/her one of the five richest persons in the world, but apparently nobody is willing to bell the cat.
In fact, there should be two budgets, one for the likes of you and me, people with meagre incomes trying to make both ends meet, and others with vast hordes in Switzerland and Cayman Islands, not to speak of Washington and Singapore who, between them, almost certainly have more money then all of us put together. Pranab Mukherjee’s budgets mean nothing to the latter, because nobody can touch their real incomes. Who will go to Switzerland to count what Mr A or Mrs B have in their accounts there? Certainly not a meek man like Mukherjee who does what he is told and keeps his mouth shut. And then you blame him for a lacklustre budget. What else can the poor man do?
I spent only five minutes on the budget because that is all it deserves. Why waste time, when you know the real money is elsewhere? In fact, almost all our economic exercises are calculations in make-believe, and do not deserve the fuss we make of them. I doubt whether even the Finance Ministers believe in the figures they trot out in the Parliament!