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Budget 2018: Jaitley seeks attention to fight disillusionment with promises

Aakar Patel/ 02 Feb 18 | 05:54 AM

Thursday’s Union Budget began with an unusual intervention from the Lok Sabha Speaker. A parliamentarian (a BJP MP from Maharashtra) had passed away, Sumitra Mahajan said, but the House would have to continue its business. Meanwhile, two other dead BJP MPs and a dead BJP MLA, all from Rajasthan, also made an intervention, in a manner of speaking. The by-election results from Ajmer and Alwar came in at the same time as Arun Jaitley began speaking, and hung over the entire speech like some spectre from a Shakespearian tragedy. More about that later. Prannoy Roy, the journalist, said this was the most wide-ranging Budget that he had ever seen, and given how long he has been analysing these things, that’s saying something.

Only two days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that the average citizen did not want handouts, but handouts is what proceedings began with. Arun Jaitley flit from one thing to another, dishing out gas connections, toilets, light bulbs, animal droppings, Wi-Fi hotspots and bamboo groves. On and on he droned, though without energy and impact. Mr Jaitley suffers, as was noted in this column after last year’s Budget, from not being a particularly good speaker. Certainly compared to his boss, Mr Modi, he is quite ordinary. This makes listening to him for over an hour not a particularly entertaining task. (This probably explains why the PM appeared after the speech to repeat the granular details of the two most important bits in the Budget: The ones concerning farmers and the grand health insurance scheme.)

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It was said about M A Jinnah that he was not a particularly good lawyer but he was a brilliant advocate: Someone who could convince in speech. Mr Jaitley is the opposite—better with the law than the advocacy. He offered brave words on the performance of his government with respect to the economy, but even the Treasury benches were unenthusiastic in applauding demonetisation. Some clever phrasing hid the fact that India had not done as well under him as it should have. And so we are told that structural reforms “in the medium and long term" (whenever that might be) mean that we are “firmly on course to achieve high growth of 8 per cent plus" (but not in 2018-19).

Mr Jaitley is particularly uncomfortable when he speaks Hindi, which he chose to do, or was asked to do, in this speech often. A Pakistani poet observed once that when a Punjabi speaks Urdu he sounds as if he is lying. One hesitates to say that about Mr Jaitley but let us say he doesn’t sound persuasive in Hindi. He tends to run out of breath and croaks at the end of a sentence. He tripped over the word “Eklavya" three times, and was laughed at by the Opposition mischief makers. He was unfamiliar with the English word for unproductive land and, after showing some puzzlement, read the line “land remains fallow" as “land remains hallow". The declamatory style, required for announcing dazzling schemes that will change your lives forever, was entirely absent. The PM was shown at various times indulging in an exaggerated thumping of his desk, to emphasise that big and grand things were being announced. Mr Modi also made two other contributions, in terms of coinage. Mr Jaitley said that after the victory achieved on the ease of doing business, the government would now turn its attention to the “ease of living" for Indians. This was, without question, the doing of Mr Modi, with his propensity for such clever wordplay and it must be conceded that he is good at this. The other word he likely coined was “Gobardhan" (a scheme about cow dung) that punned on the name for Krishna’s mountain.

Let us turn to the big story, which was the health scheme. As a civil society-wallah, I am delighted that such a thing received top billing in a budget. Whatever side of the political divide one is on, we should cheer the fact that lots of money (and hopefully it will be a lot of money because the numbers looked dodgy) is to be spent on the well-being of the weakest and most vulnerable Indians. Introducing the scheme, Mr Jaitley first demanded our attention (“now this is important"). The thing is to have a total of a half a billion beneficiaries. Mr Jaitley said, and the PM later repeated, that it was the world’s largest government health programme. Bigger than the United Kingdom’s magnificent National Health Service? Bigger than America’s Medicare and Medicaid? No. Not in terms of the spend, but in terms of coverage. The scheme’s announcement inexplicably produced booing from the Opposition, and it would be interesting to know what they were objecting to.

Some may see the scheme as a sort of abdication by the state. Many Indians have no access to a good hospital and so an insurance scheme is not necessarily the solution for them. A study by MIT’s Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee showed that there was a 97 per cent chance that a government doctor in India would diagnose your ailment wrong. The issue is that of governance: Making them do their job better, rather than kicking the problem over to the private sector and sending the patient there. Even so, as I said, it is heartening to have the government address this.

To me, an equally important aspect was the announcement to set up 150,000 wellness centres in villages. One awaits the details of both schemes, but if it turns out that the allocations do not match the rhetoric, severe repercussions will follow as will fresh allegations of jumlabaazi. The other important announcement that I was looking for was, in fact, not made, and that was the defence Budget. This monster sucks out Rs 10 billion a day from our treasury. Mr Jaitley made no mention of it and one hopes that was because it carries severe cuts.

In the end, what did it all mean? Not many seemed to know, especially the stock market. The Sensex was up 250 points after 15 minutes. After 30, it began to lose steam and after 60, it turned negative. A little after that, around the time that the long-term capital gains tax was announced, it fell about 400 points. Then, buoyed by studio commentary, it rose again to go into the green, before ending again in the red. Why?

The market may have been responding to the hammering in Rajasthan that the BJP received. The party won all 25 of the state’s Lok Sabha seats in 2014, along with all 26 of Gujarat. Given the recent results, this outcome looks most unlikely to be repeated next year, and without which, a second Modi majority becomes more difficult. Will this Budget do the trick in reversing the disillusionment that seems to be setting in across the Hindutva heartland? That is what Modi will be hoping for.


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