NEVER in one’s life has one seen such excellent coverage of the UPA Government’s last budget – and a final one at that. The Economic Times (February 28 ) said the pre-budget economic survey “tells a story of self-inflicted economic pain” even while being optimistic on growth reviving in the next fiscal.
Said the paper: “The Minister and top babus in the Food Ministry should be sacked forthwith for creating food inflation and stalling investment and economic growth in general.” Explanation is called for said the paper, for a 17 per cent inflation in foodgrains.
Business Line (March 1) said “there is nothing much in the latest budget that may contribute to an investment revival key to restoring growth to the 8 per cent levels of the last decade. The paper said the budget “should be appreciated for not being populist”. Also, said the paper, “the fact that fiscal consolidation is back on track and the government has managed to put a leash on its expenditure is something the Global Rating Agencies may well factor in.” The paper described it as “a low-voltage budget, ahead of the polls, shines weakly but fails to crackle.”
The New Indian Express (March 1) said the budget presented by Chidambaram is “not an economic reformer’s budget, simply because it does not make any serious attempt to provide logn-term solutions to the woes plaguing an economy on the slide.” It said Chidambaram has failed to keep a check on wasteful expenditure and charge him with ignoring the middle class once again, maintaining that “the budget’s promise to revive the economy is based on a number of over-optimistic assumptions”.
Deccan Herald (March 1) was equally skeptical. Failure to mention a growth estimate for 2012-2013, it said, left some fine print to read into. Also, it said, the Finance Minister must explain how subsidies will be pruned to Rs 65,000 crore without stoking inflation.
“Where’s the Big Message?” asked The Times of India (March1). The paper said that the budget “is long on growth-oriented rhetoric but short on Big-Ticket ideas that slow-down hit India needs right now.” The paper gave Chidambaram praise where it thought praise was due, as in the matter of spurring manufacturing, expediting projects and creating jobs and rolling out the Direct Benefit Transfer Scheme, nothing that the budget ‘just about meets peoples’ expectations, not their aspirations”.
The Hindu (March 1) conceded that the finance Minister “has had to squarely balance the competing claims of economic and politics”, praised exphasis laid on welfare programmes targeted at the youth, scheduled castes and tribes, minorities as well as women and children, applauded the government for giving stage billing to infra-structure development, wondered whether export promotion and a revival in manufacturing will aid the balance of payments and made the point that Chidambaram “has compressed demand, preferring to propitiate animal spirits rather than human ones, but not enough to enthuse the corporate sector. In conclusion the paper said that “If indeed the economy has ‘bottomed out’, the budget still has enough small bangs to bring some buoyancy.” If not, the paper added, “the much anticipated revival may well prove to be elusive.”
The highest praise for Chidambaram came from Swaminathan S, Anklesaria Aiyar who, writing in The Economic Times (March 1 ) said: “Never before has a Finance Minister sought to win the next elections, not through tax breaks and freebies, but by accelerating GDP growth and taming inflation through fiscal consolidation.”
Hindustan Times (March 1) said Chidambaram “had promised a responsible budget and he has delivered.” Even if he has been “harsh with expenditure” said the paper, “austerity is to endure”. The paper felt that Chidambaram has been ‘prudent’ but one – albeit the most significant – pedal is to push for economic resurrection. It said Chidambaram “has accomplished much by doing little” and “the UPA’s most widely anticipated budget and the flurry of reforms that preceded it, is a credible shot at returning to sustained high growth.”
The Asian Age (March 1 ) said “finally a populist budget with measures for the poor” has come, though it added that Chidambaram’s “attention to agriculture was woefully negligible”. It is puzzling, said the paper “why he allotted funds to irrigation-rich states like Punjab.” It spoke of a “collective sign of relief from India Inc, as Chidambaram did not increase taxes” and it advised the Minister to keep an eye on how money for the poor, the youth and women is reaching them. The paper described the budget as “Good Economics”.
DNA (March 1 ) asked: Ab kaun banega crorepati ? It was ruthless in its criticism. Possibly, of all the dailies, it comes through as a tough critic. Among other things it said: “A Union budget is meant to provide a sense of direction. This budget is directionless…. Some one has ill-advised the FM. No wonder it is clueless as well…. With 25 million people entering the job market every year, where are the incentives for job creation? …. Yes, there are good intentions, but has he consulted the Environment Ministry, the biggest bugbear for such projects?” The Telegraph (March 1 ) felt that “this was not the dream budget that was hoped for… the budget has no big announcements, no big tax reforms and no new or daring policy direction, no give aways like farm loan wavers….” While Chidambaram “has kept the subsidy burden at a reasonable level.” Under the circumstances, said the paper, “achieving 6.5 per cent GDP growth in 2013-2014 is a tall order” and “even the assumptions of tax revenues for the coming year look fanciful.” However, it added: “The strength of the budget lies in its attention to externalities and the long terms.”
Whatever the pros and cons of the debate over the budget, one thing stands out: the excellent coverage given by practically every English daily to it, going over in some instances to several pages. One might still ask: Given the circumstances, can the Finance Minister have done a better job? As one sees the situation, there is just no way a Finance Minister can meet the hopes, dreams, aspirations of all segments of society. No additional tax burden has been imposed on the middle class which forms a large part of the voting public, but then neither has the current burden been lessened with a view to garner votes. For all that, it is still fascinating to read the views of so-called experts whose pomposity seems to overtake common sense. One begins to wonder whether the so-called experts are more interested in playing to the gallery than in presenting a fair view of the budget’s relevance.