Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman presents the Union Budget 2023-24 in the Lok Sabha, in New Delhi, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2023. (Photo: PTI)
It is a curiously different Union Budget statement that finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday. It was not the Budget of a poll-bound government though this is the last budgetary exercise of the Narendra Modi government’s second term in office. The important pre-election announcement was of the free supply of foodgrains to 80 crore people for the whole of 2023, and which would possibly be extended into 2024, the year of the Lok Sabha election. This year’s Budget cannot even be called the manifesto of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi for 2024. Mr Modi is no great believer in manifestos. He believes in his personal charisma and a no-holds-barred belligerent campaign style to win the elections. He knows how to take advantage of the developments of the day and turn them into electoral ammunition, as he did with the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot airstrike that followed in the run-up to the 2019 general election.
What then does the 2023-24 Budget stand for? Ms Sitharaman made it clear that this year’s Budget is the second part of last year’s exercise, delineating the goals of "Amrit Kaal", the 25-year period running from 2022, the 75th year of India’s Independence, till the 100th in 2047. The goals are general and they might appear as if they include all the sectors of the economy as the Prime Minister had claimed in his post-Budget statement. But what the Budget speech projects is a complacent attitude and the tone of things that are to be achieved in the next three years. She says that the Budget adopts seven priorities, not so much as targets, but as a guide, and she compares them to "Saptarshi", a reference to the seven stars of the Great Bear formation with the Hindu mythological reference to the seven sages. Of course, Ms Sitharaman does not belabour the mythological reference, and simply moves on.
The government is of course quite happy that there is no economic crisis in India that is haunting the other major economies in the world, such as slower growth as in China, and the dangers of inflation and recession in America and in Europe. Ms Sitharaman derives satisfaction that India is the "bright star" of the global economy, and with its near seven per cent annual growth rate in 2022-23 and in 2023-24, it has the highest growth rate for any major economy. So, freed of the burden of tackling any immediate challenge, the government feels that it can sit back and think of some favourite schemes it would like implemented. So, we get the idea of a National Digital Library for Children and Adolescents, and the directive that books should be written for this age group in Indian languages, and which has nothing to do with curriculum, and these are to be published by the National Book Trust (NBT) and Children’s Book Trust (CBT). This scheme is projected as a response to loss in learning skills of children during the two-year Covid-19 pandemic interregnum. Then there is the suggestion of strengthening the existing 81 lakh self-help groups (SHGs) of women and taking them into the next stage of economic growth by turning them into "large producer enterprises or collectives". Then another curious idea is mooted, that of supporting the artisans and their production of art and handicraft through financial support, and state governments have been asked to set up "Unity Malls" to showcase and to facilitate the trade in handicrafts. And it is aimed at Scheduled Tribes (STs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). It is interesting that the finance minister as well as the Prime Minister scrupulously avoid religious minorities like Muslims, Christians and Sikhs and their economic needs. Mr Modi is well aware of the boundaries of the Hindutva agenda. There is also the programme of encouraging the growth of millets, though the finance minister has admitted that India is the largest producer of millets and the second largest exporter. Though Ms Sitharaman had recited all the local names of millet varieties, she has carefully subsumed them under the Sanskritised rubric of "Shri Anna", with "anna" denoting food in Sanskrit.
The 2023-24 Union Budget of Ms Sitharaman can at best be described as a Budget of idle curiosities, lacking any sense of urgency or of short-term targets. Prime Minister Modi and Ms Sitharaman have been dwelling for the past two years on long-term goals. Mr Modi believes in vision statements, and he has turned the Budget statement from being a presentation of facts and figures into one of distant goals. It shows that Mr Modi is confident that there is no political challenge to him, and he can indulge in the luxury of dreaming about a future.
Behind the idle vision of the future is the mindset of a leader who is keen to control every aspect of national like from books to be read by children -- with the NBT and CBT assigned the task of publishing them, then it is inevitable they will choose what are the kind of books to be read -- and how India’s traditional crafts should be organised to help the artisans who belong to oppressed castes of Hindu society like the SCs and OBCs, and marginalised groups like the STs. In the political imagination of Mr Modi, as that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which had mentored him, the STs are a part of Hindu society though RSS volunteers work to Sanskritise them culturally. Mr Modi works for the welfare of different classes and castes of Hindu society. Of course, he does not ever state that he is the leader of Hindu society, though his actions declare his intentions eloquently.
It can be asked as to how the Indian economy has escaped the ravages of Covid-19, the after-effects of the Russia-Ukraine war and the inflation denting the advanced economies of Europe and North America. The government would claim that it has insulated the Indian economy from the global economic headwinds through its successful vaccination programme and through its programme of free foodgrains to 80 crore Indians. Underlying the resilience of the Indian economy is domestic consumption, public investment. Even if the Indian economy does not perform at competitive levels, its optimal performance is good enough to keep the economy afloat. Prime Minister Modi is therefore enjoying the economic lull.