Why India needs more ‘professional pessimists’

In any case, it’s time to rethink the theatrics surrounding the Budget presentation.

There is always something new to learn from Narendra Modi, our witty Prime Minister. Like his dismissal of critics who didn’t go gaga over Nirmala Sitharaman’s marathon but essentially lacklustre Budget, which was eloquently described as “timid” by a financial heavyweight. Showing his impatience and irritation with anybody who dared to question the salient features of the red cloth covered tome (“bahi-khatta” — not the standard, no-nonsense, leather briefcase), that took the minister sahiba two hours and 17 minutes to deliver (without a sip of water in between, it was noted), the Prime Minister came up with a scathing putdown for non-believers — he dubbed the lot — “professional pessimists”. Since he didn’t quite expand on the insult, it left people a little bewildered.

By “professional”, did he mean they got paid to be pessimists? Do we have a new job description here? Was displaying pessimism their full-time occupation? Can it be described as an honest-to-goodness naukri? Who gives them their salaries? How much do they earn? What is the going rate for professional pessimists? Are there a few who express pessimism for free? Some who treat pessimism as a side business? Or a social service? Where does one apply for the post? Without knowing it, our dynamic and far-sighted Prime Minister did indeed unleash a national debate on the subject. Pessimists for hire? Folks, it’s a whole new opportunity, in a market that is seriously suffering from job deprivation. And overall depression. The numbers are there for all to analyse. As a financial wiz told me with a sad shake of her head, “The Sensex was smoking dope for a while… but after this Budget, it’s going to require even more dope to keep it buoyant.”

She went on to paint a realistic, if grim scenario of market sentiments. Hope and dope go well together. Pre-Budget, adventurous investors had banked heavily on good stuff happening. Tremendous innings were expected, given the build-up and hype.

Exactly like our cricket team’s chances at the World Cup. Now look at what as happened! First, the Budget tanked. And next, our team crashed out. Satyanaash!

Personally, I found it a bit silly to keep harping on Ms Sitharaman’s gender while going nuts over a “full-time woman finance minister” presenting the Budget. Indira Gandhi had done it earlier, but that doesn’t count, I suppose, since she was the Prime Minister holding the finance portfolio. Great! Fantastic and all that. But it is not as if Ms Sitharaman created the Budget in isolation, cracking numbers in a closed room, all by her lonesome self. What’s the big deal? And please, all those gimmicks and that drama of the Prime Minister driving to a former Prime Minister’s residence to seek his blessings, present a bouquet, etc. By then, it was a done deal, anyway. The red cloth was sealed. The halwa ceremony, over. The halwa fully digested. It was nothing but an empty, meaningless gesture. And I so wish Dr Manmohan Singh had been less gracious and not agreed to participate in what was nothing more than a convenient photo-op.

In any case, it’s time to rethink the theatrics surrounding the Budget presentation. Let’s make it a routine function of the government in power. One good thing about this year’s ceremony was the timing (11 am — something Yashwant Sinha had sensibly introduced). The old timing (5 pm) is a relic of the Raj. An afternoon Budget was better suited to the imperial bosses sitting in London. Like a lot of other antiquated Brit traditions, this too needed to be discarded. Glad Mr Modi took the initiative and finally chucked the practice overboard.

Perhaps his government will also reformat the entire Budget tamasha and make it more relevant to citizens. We really don’t need couplets and poetry in Hindi, Urdu, Sanskrit and Tamil to break the bad news to us. Just give us the basics and leave us to digest the worst. Quoting saints and bards does not deflect from tough realities like diesel and petrol prices going up. Just slap us hard, a la Kabir Singh, and let us deal with the stinging pain. Life often imitates movies — who knows? We may get used to being abused and come back for more abuse, like Kabir Singh’s girlfriend in the film.

Talking of cinema, I wonder if Mr Modi and his Cabinet colleagues have watched the hard-hitting Article 15? If not, a special screening is highly recommended. I watched it a day after the Budget session, when I was already pretty upset, and staring at my credit card forlornly, wondering whether or not to order popcorn, when boom! I got drawn into a story that hit me in the gut. Maybe it was also made by a professional pessimist — I wouldn’t know. But Anubhav Sinha boldly goes where few have dared to. The Badaun rape case is a take-off point to raise multiple questions about our deeply entrenched prejudices. The horrific fallout of a gang rape sees a police chowki polarised and eventually defeated by the politics of caste.

The issue of caste — India’s biggest shame — is dealt with in a manner so upfront and brutal, it shakes you to the core. That one awful word “auquat” is chillingly tabled. That’s when one realises that the curse of caste remains unsolvable even today in the 21st century. A curse which claims countless lives. Lives nobody gives a damn about, because they don’t really count. It is the wretchedness of these very lives that the Budget 2019-2020 was supposed to address. But has not. Tax the super rich some more, by all means. And it’s really cool to advise India Inc. to “Wake up the animal instinct…” whatever that implies, madam finance minister.

But first tell us what you propose to do with about 70 per cent of India — which remains stuck in the cesspool of perpetual deprivation — with very little hope in sight? The image of those two young girls hanging from a tree in Badaun was intended to remind the families of the victims (and the rest of the village) — the sinister meaning of “auquat” — lest anybody get the false idea that the fate of being born into a certain caste can ever be left behind. Even today. Regardless of what Article 15 of the Indian Constitution guarantees each and every citizen. Yes sir. We need more pessimists to hold up a mirror to these inequalities and atrocities. They needn’t be professionals. Amateurs will do!

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