Politics trumps ideology

Stating that the budget represented the philosophy of his government to ‘Transform, Energise and Clean’ India, the Finance Minister has presented a budget that is in many ways quite impressive. As the details of the budget were not out even on the Finance Ministry’s website at the time of my writing this, it is note possible to evaluate it fully in the sense of being able to assess whether the minister’s claims on revenue expectation, and therefore the deficit, are credible. However, the budgetary allocations are intelligent and do add up to a reasonable vision of what the economy needs at the moment. In fact, after having presented three quite lack-lustre budgets in a row Mr. Jaitley appears to have learned on the job. His presentation was business-like and knowledgeable and specific about the interventions that he had in mind. It is to be hoped that we are seeing the beginning of a competition among our political parties to present meaningful budgets for the people of India, budgets without literary embellishment and responsible in their approach. 

            Despite the reasonableness of many of the allocations and some of the tax measures, however, the finance minister started the Budget Speech with claims that are either untenable or irrelevant. There is excessive credit taken for the current macroeconomic stability in terms of a low balance-of-payments deficit and inflation, both of which reflect the slowing of growth in India. Now the trope, often adopted by the Prime Minister himself, that India is the sole “bright spot” in the world economy is beside the point. Moreover, the foreign exchange reserves that the minster alluded to were almost as high even when this government had taken over in March 2014. Surprisingly for a government that takes pride in India’s cultural autonomy there was reference to the plaudits that management of the Indian economy had received from the World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and the World Economic Forum. But most noticeable was his laboured effort to rationalise the demonetization. Spoken of as a measure ‘to honour the honest’, there was little reference to the economic uncertainty that it has caused. The benefits, it was blithely claimed, would come in the train of events, with no specifics whatsoever being outlined.

            Whatever the opening rhetoric on the performance of the Modi government so far, the macroeconomic credentials of the budget are quite impressive, however. The highlight is a greater than 25 percent increase in capital spending and a substantial increase in the transfer to the states. These indicate the need to stimulate the economy and to cultivate a more healthy federal relationship, respectively. It is with respect to the increased capital expenditure, though, that the Minister has shown himself to be quite statesmanlike. It may be noted that the increase in capital expenditure in his last budget was less than 4 percent. So we have a quantum leap here. Clearly, the dip in the rate of growth even before the quarter in which the demonetisation was implemented has served to energise this government. It seems there is nothing like a slowing economy to concentrate the mind of a political party in a democracy! But the politics aside, the increase in capital expenditure is impressive and can indeed contribute to an improvement in the quality of life in India. But it is with respect to fiscal consolidation that there has been a pleasant surprise. Despite the hectoring by professional economists and his political rivals to stick to the path of fiscal consolidation aimed at capping the fiscal deficit at 3 percent of the GDP, Mr. Jaitley has shown nerve to step on the brake and glide it down to 3.2 percent for now. While the exact figure may be a point of discussion, it is to be hoped that the fixation with a fixed target for the fiscal deficit is from now on a thing of the past. The budget is to be balanced over the cycle, i.e., expanded as the economy slows and contracted as it quickens, the rest is merely ideology. But it is not as if the Minister can walk away with only the bouquets as far as fiscal management is concerned. There could have been a greater effort to trim the revenue deficit; at least a statement of the intention of eliminating it altogether in the future. A revenue deficit implies that we are borrowing to consume. It is not surprising that there has been little movement in this direction for the Modi government is no different from the rest of the field when it comes to subsidies. But it has done the right thing in raising the allocation for the MNREGA by close to 25 percent. The allocation for this employment guarantee scheme is the highest the history of this scheme. Now only the implementation remains. It is important to ensure that beneficiaries will receive their full payment on time and that the expenditure is targeted on asset-building to the extent feasible.

         Away from the fiscal balances, the budget does have a clear orientation. It is towards the rural population, for which the allocation of Rs. 1, 87,223 crores is higher by 24 percent. Specifically, the allocation for rural sanitation is higher by 18 percent and there is the impressive target of achieving 100 percent electrification by 2018. The benefits of the latter would go disproportionately to rural India, and this is overdue. There are also incentives schemes for the attainment of open-defection-free villages in the form of the supply of arsenic and fluoride-free piped water to them. Panchayati Raj institutions are to receive assistance to raise their level of human resource endowment and a special fund for irrigation to be operated by NABARD. Two claims on what the budget does for rural India, however, stand out as either over ambitious or vague. It is suggested that agriculture will continue to grow by 4.1 percent. This induces incredulousness as such a rate has not been consistently attained in the country. Secondly, there is a plan to lift 50, 000 grama panchayats out of poverty. We are yet to be told how these will be chosen and, more to the point, given an idea of the plan.

            While the focus on rural India is welcome, it could have been politically driven though and may have resulted in some loss of clarity on what is salient. While the largest number of Indians do reside in the rural areas agriculture contributes to less than 20 percent of the national income. One cannot help but wonder what the government, through this budget, intends for the remaining 80 percent. After all it is not so long ago that the Government’s main programme had been ‘Make in India’, a plan to expand manufacturing, and Mr. Modi’s first journey upon election had been to the lair of the global CEO in New York. Manufacturing growth is important as it has a high elasticity of employment generation and the poverty rate is higher in urban India. Could it be that the government smartly sensed that the technocratic case for a high economic multiplier in fiscal spending is also aligned with the biggest political ‘bang for the buck’? Politics trumps ideology in this budget, and, for a change, that is welcome.   

Pulapre Balakrishnan is Professor of Economics, Ashoka University and Senior Fellow, Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode.