After listening to 160 minutes of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech, treasury and opposition MPs trooped out of the Lok Sabha trying to decipher the central message of Budget 2020-21. Some with keener interest in ancient history said they were surprised the FM suggested the hieroglyphs on Harappan seals had been deciphered.
The Narendra Modi government had presented its 2015 Budget a fortnight after its drubbing in the Delhi Assembly polls, jettisoning its promise of reform to turn to "garib kalyan", or welfare of the poor, as its leitmotif.
Five years on, the Delhi Assembly polls, a week away, weighed on its mind as it promised new tax slabs to benefit the middle class. If this made its MPs from Delhi happy, those from the Hindi heartland said they were unsure about the message they would take back to their constituencies.
There were concerns about subsidies on food and fertiliser being reduced, as also dwindling budgetary allocations for the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
The 2020 Budget is important, as was the 2015 — these were the first full Budgets of the respective new governments presented in a year with the fewest Assembly polls, just two, and the government was expected to show the courage to take up reforms and new schemes. It couldn’t in 2015, and it hasn’t in 2020.
If in 2015 Budget, the then finance minister Arun Jaitley announced reining in of inflation as its highlight, ruling party MPs struggled to find any assurance from Sitharaman on checking price rise at a time when CPI inflation is over 7 per cent and food inflation is over 10 per cent.
The government is likely to face challenges in disinvesting LIC and other public sector undertakings not just from opposition parties, but also from within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram termed it “panic privatisation” to plug revenue shortfalls. Other opposition leaders said the plan to sell off LIC was a pretext to compensate the states, akin to the Centre dumping the burden of economic slowdown and demonetisation on the states.
They pointed out the states' share of tax revenue was 19 per cent lower than projections made last year. In 2020-21, the FM plans to share even less than what she projected last year. Clearly, relations between the Centre and the states are set to get strained further.
The BJP’s core supporters, however, exulted on social media at the proposed setting up of an Indian Institute of Heritage and Conservation, the Rs 3,150 crore allocated for the Ministry of Culture and another Rs 2,500 crore for the Ministry of Tourism. "The acquisition of knowledge in disciplines such as museology and archeology are essential for collecting and analysing scientific evidence of such findings and for dissemination through high quality museums," Sitharaman said.
The FM also proposed the setting up of a tribal museum in Ranchi, Jharkhand. "Five archaeological sites in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu would be developed with on-site museums," she said. All these states are either BJP ruled, or in the case of Tamil Nadu, by its ally AIADMK.
In an interesting claim, the FM said that the words from the Indus script, which are all hieroglyphics, had been deciphered. “Interesting words we need to know in the commerce and trade related industry. The words show how India for millennia has been a continuing civilisation, with rich skills in metallurgy and trading and so on.
However, there was little on job creation and the opposition questioned how the government planned to achieve its target of doubling farm incomes by 2022 at current growth rates.