Sunday, February 1, 2004

Preface to a Budget

Preface to a Budget
By Narendra Luther

Budgeting is a daily exercise for the common people. But the Government being too busy in spending money cannot waste time on such an activity on day-to-day basis. So it does its budgeting once in a year. There is too much unnecessary mystery about the budget. It is simply an exercise of balancing loot against largesse. Or, cut down every need to half.

There is the well-known story of a first-time Finance Minister in a State. The family heard him talk too much about the budget. One day they all surrounded him and asked him to explain what the term meant.

The greenhorn minister proceeded to educate them. He asked each member what he or she wanted. Every one expressed their wish. As usual, the wife’s turn came last. The simple old lady asked only for a salwar’. The great husband turned to her gravely and pronounced:’ All right, you want a salwar. One leg this year, the other next year. That is budget’.

That is all that is done on the national basis – adjusting wants to the available resources. It boils down to raising levies somewhere and lowering them elsewhere.

But that is not all. An elaborate speech has to be made by the Finance Minister to test the patience of his fellow lawmakers. He does it sometime by obfuscating the listeners with tons of statistics. Some relieve the tedium with a sprinkling of humour. Manmohan Singh started the practice of reciting couplets of Urdu poetry. Urdu couplets have one great quality. They elicit wah, wahs no matter whether the audience understands the meaning or not. That results in a quick approval of the budget. Chidambram emulated him by adding a few lines from a Tamil poet. People called it a novel budget only because of that element. They don’t understand the difference between poetry and fiction.

The Afternoon Budget

For half century our budget was presented at half past three in the afternoon. No one knew the reason for that except that the British had fixed that mahurat. Since we followed all their conventions, this too was meekly accepted. Some people believed that it was designed to give less time to the Opposition. Others said that after his long speech, the Finance Minister -- and more than him, the members were too exhausted to sit any longer. Also they got an evening to frame their comments and objections. Then one finance minister declared heretically that the budget would be presented at 11 AM. He explained that the British had fixed that time for their own convenience. They being five-and –a half-hours behind us, they wanted the Indian budget to be presented when their offices opened. How clever!

Budget speech is routinely followed by comments from the treasury and the Opposition. Their remarks are entirely predictable. The treasury benches keep their cheerleaders, and the Opposition their jeer leaders ready for the purpose. Te Opposition is paid to criticize the budget. Their comments can be forestalled. ‘The budget has nothing new’. ‘It takes away more than it gives’. ‘It is anti-poor’. It will increase the burden on the middle class’. ‘It is a script dictated by IMF and the World Bank’. ‘It is a jugglery with figures’. Once, a week before the presentation of the budget, I published all possible comments and reactions which leaders of different groups and parties could possibly make Some leaders rang up to thank me for the briefing. Others objected that I had deprived them of the chance of sounding original. Nothing is more recycled than the comments on budget from the treasury benches and the Opposition.

The Santa Clause Budget

Apart from the regular budget, sometime there is the miniature budget. It is called ‘vote-on –account’. It is put into effect when elections come in when the budget should have bee presented. It seeks temporary sanction of the legislature to cover the expenditure pending the constitution of the legislature so that there is no stoppage of work in government. It serves the purpose of dividing the budget into two parts. The first part is sweeter. All the milk of human kindness stagnating in the withered breast of the abstemious Finance Minister suddenly gushes forth for the common man. His taciturn face, which is duty –bound under oath not to smile, assumes the visage of the smiling Buddha. The Santa Clause opens his bag and starts distributing goodies to all and sundry. Old claims for increase in salaries are conceded. New concessions on income tax are announced. Custom duties are slashed. New jobs are sanctioned and promises made for creation of more. The government, which, like an alcoholic, was always in denial, and in a fighting mood suddenly, turns benign and indulgent. The Spanish bull transforms into the Indian kamadhenu. That is democracy at its best – government entirely for the people. No courting is more fervent than the one by the incumbent ministers for the voter.

The second part of the budget comes after the new government is installed. There are two possible scenarios there. Either the old government comes bask, or a different party forms the government. In the former case, it is like the morning after. All the frisson of the vote-on –account is dissipated. Now is the season of tightening of the purse strings by the government, and of belts by the people. The Kennedy-an clarion call for asking what you can do for the country is made from house top – no, from inside the House - once again. Sacrifices for the future are asked for. Those promises? Ah! They were made at a different time.

The Change of Guards

It is worse if another party from the Opposition come to power. Its ministers expose the financial profligacy of their predecessors. They explain how they looted the people, spent money on wasteful projects and in the course of that made money for themselves. They left the treasury empty and the government bankrupt. They had spent every penny, and left the State in a debt trap. Every citizen owed to the invisible creditor the equivalent of one month’s salary. All their promises made by them were hollow. Now we will have to build from scratch. For that people – you, dear readers and I, poor writer -- will have to make sacrifices and atone for our democratic sins. That is the time to pay the price. The new leaders, washed in milk will promise to set up an inquiry to look into the misdeeds of their predecessors. Law will be set on its course.

The Second Budget

The small, interim budget is over. We have got all that we could from it. Now the bell will toll. I wait in trepidation for the second, normal budget, which will put us back on the bumpy road, which, regrettably, was not repaired by last government. In Shakespeare’s phraseology, the maid would soon be wed – and the very sky will be changing.


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