The symbolism of discarding the briefcase to carry documents apart, the first Budget of the second Modi government was in stark contrast to the Budget presented in 2014. And nothing underscored it more than Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speech Friday as she delivered her maiden Budget.
In 2014, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced over two dozen schemes, many with a token allocation of around Rs 100 crore. Five years on, the confidence of a second term with an enhanced majority was apparent in Sitharaman’s speech, in which she avoided new announcements with token budgetary allocations, choosing instead to focus on plans to achieve the Prime Minister’s target of a $5 trillion economy in five years.
The 2014 Budget also launched initiatives — Digital India, Skill India, Jan Dhan Yojana, Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, and Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana among others. It aimed to signal the new government’s drive to live up to the electorate’s hopes through these promises.
The first Modi government also included the Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana, Kisan TV, a 24×7 channel for the North-East, Rejuvenation and Spiritual Augmentation Drive (PRASAD), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY) — to seemingly address demands from the wider Sangh Parivar affiliates and their concerns. And to honour icons of its larger cultural nationalist political ideology, the 2014 Budget launched the Dayal Upadhyaya Gram Jyoti Yojana, Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission, Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya New Teachers Training Programme and the Statue of Unity.
In a way, through these small initiatives, the budget five years ago tried to acknowledge every section that lent its support to the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Cut to the present, Sitharaman refrained from either launching a flurry of schemes or making token allocations to assuage a section of party’s larger support groups across the country. Riding on the enhanced mandate that came on the back of the first Modi government’s track record, Sitharaman seemed not weighed down by the demands from different sections.
This is also apparent from the structure of Sitharaman’s Budget speech which started with the premise of an ambitious but achievable target of making India a $5 trillion economy by 2024. For this purpose, her speech comprised large visionary plans.
“The common man was served even as major transformational reforms were being rolled out…So, the scaling up that we talked about which marks the USP of this government is revealed in each one of these examples. We do it in that scale each time,” said Sitharaman.
Her speech did not incorporate several elements which have by now become a traditional part of every finance minister’s speech. She did not spell out spending on Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Women or even agricultural credit or expenditure figures for defence in her speech. She did not indicate average revenue loss or additional revenue estimates of her proposals, leaving it to the members to read from the Budget documents provided. Barring her proposal to tax high income earning individuals, the 2019 Budget appeared anchored on the same side as that of her predecessor Jaitley.
“ We do not look down upon legitimate profit-earning,” Sitharaman declared, suggesting that her moorings were definitely not on the side of Nehruvian socialism. Jaitley, too, in his speech had indicated his belief against wasteful socialism and emphasised his belief in fiscal prudence.
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“The steps that I will announce in this Budget are only the beginning of a journey towards a sustained growth of 7-8 per cent or above within the next 3-4 years along with macro-economic stabilisation that includes lower levels of inflation, lesser fiscal deficit and a manageable current account deficit,” Jaitley had said in 2014.
Sitharaman, in that way, stuck to the fiscal prudence and fiscal consolidation despite demands from a section of policy analysts to loosen the purse-strings for reviving the economy.