By Swapan Dasgupta
Like most things Indians or, rather, Hindu, there is a great deal of ritualism that accompanies the annual Budget exercise. For Finance Minister P.Chidambaram, a seasoned hand in presenting Budgets, the predictable part of the choreography may lie in the mandatory recitation of a verse from Thiruvalluvar; for the writers of the Economic Survey it may consist of repeating last year’s assurance that darkness is inevitably accompanied by sunshine; and for those who are dubbed corporate ‘honchos’ it may lie in describing every Budget as ‘responsible’, ‘innovative’, or even ‘path-breaking’.
However, like the mantras that commits the worshipper to give generously to the Brahmin intermediary between God and the devout, the invocations need not be taken at face value. This is particularly so with a Chidambaram Budget. PC’s reputation for having a low threshold of tolerance and his self-projection as a most superior person have ensured that candid discussions of the Budget are behind closed doors. Apart from the political class who enjoy exceptional protection and a few economists who are mad enough to speak their mind, the predictable response to a PC Budget is about as mellifluous as the King of Basutoland’s tribute to Queen Victoria : “my country is your blanket, and my people the lice upon it.”
I am naturally not referring to those corporate notables who were sceptical of the claim that the present fiscal deficit is 5.2 per cent of the GDP because some crucial items of expenditure had been conveniently overlooked but, yet, that the Budget was good or even excellent. I am not even contesting the belief that the Indian economy needs to be talked up, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tried to do when he feebly suggested that an 8 per cent GDP is not in the realms of a Bollywood fantasy. My simple assertion is that the orchestrated projection of PC as the perennial Superman (recall an India Today cover after the Budget of 1997) who, having ‘fixed’ the deficit, now deserves a role greater than being Finance Minister is a tad overstated.
Nor is this particular reading of the tea leaves too fanciful. According to the political grapevine of Lutyens’ Delhi which tends to get a little overshadowed by the Budget drama, there was a flutter of sorts in North Block last Thursday following an article in The Hindu that painted the Finance Minister as yet another lackey of corporate India—a Congress version of Narendra Modi who was being projected by an alliance of moneybags, ‘communalists’ and Middle India as the great brown hope. That it had been penned by a man whose understanding of the Congress is quite profound added to the consternation. The article was brought to my proverbial attention by a man whose understanding of the Prime Minister is equally deep suggested that something was brewing.
In public, the Congress will heartily endorse the Budget of 2013. They will point to the fact that PC has not curtailed expenditure, particularly on welfare schemes, has reached out to women albeit symbolically, has snarled at the 42,800 of India’s super-rich with a taxable income of over Rs 1 crore and even managed to set new norms for backwardness that could increase the wedge between Nitish Kumar and the BJP. To add to these achievements, he deftly targeted Indian SUV manufacturers, enhanced the tax burden on the futures trades in non-agricultural commodities and added to the woes of the diamond industry. On paper these may look random but there was an underlying hint of punitive action against those who have links to Gujarat and Modi.
In this Budget, the Finance Minister had little elbow room. That he made the most of the limited opportunities will endear him to a section of the Congress that believes the way forward is for Rahul Gandhi to find his own answer to his mother’s choice of Manmohan Singh as Regent. Only the wilfully obtuse can overlook the fact that the Budget has been accompanied by the first tentative demands of a ‘PC for PM’ campaign. At present, the hints of such an approach for the 2014 general election is emanating from a group that can be said to be headquartered in Race Course Road, a clutch of businessmen and industrialists who are based in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu and, as such, have little or no dealings with the alternative superstar in Gujarat. It may even find tacit support from diplomatic missions who are uneasy at the thought of a familiar Establishment being replaced by unknown people.
Ideally, for these sections, Rahul should have been at the helm of the ‘continuity with change’ strategy. However, for reasons well known, he has proved a disappointment. Hence, the importance being attached to Chidambaram and, equally, the rising opposition to what Congress loyalists see as a recipe for electoral disaster. “Mamnohan Singh joined the Congress to become Finance Minister”, a disaffected Congress MP told me last week, “but Chidambaram left the Congress to become Finance Minister.” The reference was to PC’s defection to the Tamil Maanila Congress in 1996.
In India, few remember history. For PC, the real test is not whether his DNA is Congress but whether India experiences a bout of sunshine before voting day in 2014. At present, the future of the economy is in a state of Ram bharose.
Sunday Pioneer, March 3, 2013
Sunday Pioneer, March 3, 2013