Just yesterday, Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 in what was a very long speech. The length notwithstanding, it was short on material required to lift the sagging mood in the country with respect to the economy. The markets tanked big time by the end of the day. If one goes by the commentaries in the media and expert opinions in social media, it seems that the budget has disappointed one and all. As one expert on TV put it, the reaction was about what could have been done rather than what has been done.
The reaction to the last budget by the same minister in July 2019 was almost similar. Right after the big victory and into a second consecutive term, everyone expected a bolder budget with a road map for tough reforms from the Modi Sarkar. That didn’t happen.
If you go back further to the last few budgets, the story is similar. In the pre-budget season the air is thick with expectations of all kind. Expectations of big bang reforms, of new big ideas, of a vision for the country and of course of income tax rate cuts! And post the budget speech, the reactions have been similar. “What is the one big idea in the budget?” “Where are the big bang reforms?” “There is no vision in the budget!” and so on.
The last time the media hailed the budget generously was P. Chidambaram’s way back in 1997. It was termed as the “Dream Budget” when it presented a road map for economic reforms in India and included lowering income tax rates, removal of the surcharge on corporate taxes and reduced corporate tax rates. But ever since the budget presentation became a media spectacle post the explosion of 24*7 News media, I don’t recall any budget (of any government) being hailed as a visionary budget or a great budget. Most of the times, the budgets have only disappointed people.
Today, there is a big disconnect between the expectations from the budget speech and what it can deliver. And increasingly, the scope of what the budget speech can deliver is reducing day by day thanks to reforms and change in governance models.
I am of the view that it’s high time we do away with this annual over hyped British era relic of a budget speech which focuses on outlays for the following reasons:
- Leaving aside the Aam admi who doesn’t follow or understand the language of the budget, increasingly everyone expects the budget speech to actually lay out the “Governance vision and strategy” rather than increase or decrease of allocations. Essentially people are expecting the government to talk the corporate language. Of Vision, Mission and Strategy for the coming year/years.
- For the budget speech, the FM takes inputs from other ministries on their key initiatives for the coming year and then announces outlays for the same. In a sense the FM is talking on behalf of her/his colleagues. There is little review of outcomes of the past outlays and the focus is more on the future outlays.
- In the past, one of the areas of interest for the common man from the budget is to know what gets costlier and what gets cheaper. The finance ministry adjusted the tax and excise rates to balance revenue collections for the budget. In the present GST regime, the GST rates are decided by the GST council. The GST council meets as per their charter and decides the change in rates when required. Ergo, the budget speech doesn’t have details of prices going up and down. The exception being any reduction or increase in basic customs duty for imported goods. As we have seen in the recent past, the finance ministry has taken to these announcements whenever they want.
- Coming back to yesterday’s budget speech, the common feeling was that there was no big announcement that would assuage the struggling economy. If one remembers, the same Finance Minister Sitharaman, had announced an unexpected corporate tax rate cut in September 2019. One must remember that this was not done in the budget speech of July 2019. This was announced out of the blue, in an out of turn announcement as a counter measure to prop up the economy, then. So my point is, measures that are required to be taken can be and should be taken and announced when needed. One doesn’t have to wait for the budget speech to actually make such announcements.
- Again if one closely analysed the budget speech, many of the initiatives announced by the Finance Minister can reach its logical conclusion only with last mile delivery by the states. In the sense, these are more like nudges to the state to perform better to get more outlays.
- Till 2016, there was another media spectacle called the Railway budget. The Modi government took a wise call to do away with this ritual and merged with the Union budget. Except for the reason that it was a British era custom that was followed, it seemed there was no reason for just one of the many departments of the Government of India to have a separate budget presentation day! We don’t have any empirical evidence of any deterioration in the ministry’s performance since then.
- As I see, there are just a handful of countries in the world who still follow this Annual budget presentation ritual!
Considering all of the above, my submission is, it’s time to bid Good Bye to this all-encompassing Annual Budget Speech by the Finance Minister. Instead, this should be replaced by an address by the Prime Minister in the lines of the State of the Union Address (SOTU) in the US. In this address, the PM should take stock of the situation in the country, the issues on hand and present a vision, road map and the priorities for the coming year. This should be followed by debates in the parliament to understand the views of the other parties and opposition. In the same session, key ministries must present the outcomes of the previous year against the outlays and the plan, initiatives for the coming year in line with the vision, priorities outlined in the PM’s speech. By this, along with the Prime Minister the entire cabinet will be made responsible for their achievements and misses in their ministries, every year.
Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for leaving a legacy has a golden opportunity here. By replacing the budget speech ritual with PM’s Annual Vision Address!
Pic Courtesy: Bloomberg