During the months of February and March, assembly elections are scheduled in five states. Despite this, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman made a very thanda – for the lack of a better word – budget speech. This wasn’t expected. Political experts and Delhi journalists were expecting her to make a very political speech, with a lot of giveaways for potential voters built in.
But that wasn’t the case.
Sitharaman used the word “drone” four times in the speech and the word “digital” 36 times. But none of these usages was in a context that can be turned into an easy-to-read and understandable WhatsApp forward, through which much of the narrative is driven these days. These forwards drive the way people figure out things in their head.
Let’s look at the usage of the word “digital” in some detail. It was used in the context of developing a central bank digital currency, a digital university to provide world-class quality universal education and to tax cryptos. None of these are things which would get the average voter immediately excited. The word “youth” was used six times. Again in contexts which wouldn’t excite people.
Or take the case of the word “employment” that was used six times in the speech. Take one instance: “Artificial intelligence, geospatial systems and drones, semiconductor and its ecosystem, space economy, genomics and pharmaceuticals, green energy, and clean mobility systems have immense potential to assist sustainable development at scale and modernise the country. They provide employment opportunities for youth, and make Indian industry more efficient and competitive.”
Or another: “National Capital Goods Policy, 2016 aims at doubling the production of capital goods by 2025. This would create employment opportunities and result in increased economic activity.”
These are very dense sentences which can’t be made simplistic and sent across as WhatsApp forwards. It is not the kind of stuff that the Hindi language media can splash on their front pages or TV headlines to show how the government has played Santa Claus in this budget and got goodies which people have been waiting for in this election season.
This year’s budget speech did not answer the simple question asked by everyone who follows the media on the budget day and the next: What is in it for me?
This question is like the old Maruti advertisement, “kitna deti hai” (how much does it give). The question that most people have after the budget is “kya mil raha hai” (what are we getting). There were no answers for this question in the budget speech.
Take the case of last year’s budget speech. As the finance minister said: “Within 48 hours of declaring a three week long complete lockdown, the prime minister announced the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, valued at Rs 2.76 lakh crore – this provided free food grain to 800 million people, free cooking gas for 80 million families for months, and cash directly to over 400 million farmers, women, elderly, the poor and the needy.”
Or when she said: “We will work towards raising the share of public transport in urban areas through expansion of metro rail network and augmentation of city bus service. A new scheme will be launched at a cost of Rs 18,000 crore to support augmentation of public bus transport services.”
Such points – that can be splashed by the media and can be developed into WhatsApp forwards – were simply missing from this year’s budget speech.
Let’s consider the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana, a scheme which has been very popular given the economic distress that has prevailed across large sections of the society due to the spread of the Covid pandemic. The scheme gives five kg of free food grains per person. As of now, the scheme ends on March 31. While the elections are scheduled to happen before that day, an extension of the scheme beyond March 31 would have been a sure-shot vote gatherer.
So, the question is, why did the government, which is normally extremely marketing savvy, miss out on this opportunity of extending the scheme? Other than making political sense, it would have made economic sense as well, given that large parts of the economy are still facing economic distress.
Before we try answering this question, let’s look at the total food subsidy budgeted for in 2022-23. The total food subsidy budgeted is Rs 2.1 lakh crore. This is significantly lower than the Rs 2.9 lakh crore which will go towards food subsidy as per the revised estimate for 2021-22. From what the budget numbers suggest, the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana might possibly be coming to an end in March. The government needs to compensate the Food Corporation of India for giving away food grains for free. And if it hasn’t budgeted for it, how will it compensate for it?
But that’s the logical and factual way of looking at it. Politics isn’t always about logic. It’s also about timing. And the government can still spin a surprise by announcing an extension closer to the election dates in Uttar Pradesh, so that the decision is fresh in the minds of people and encourages them to vote for the Bharatiya Janata Party. As far as the food subsidy numbers in the budget are concerned, they can always be revised upwards.
Vivek Kaul is the author of Bad Money.