Nirmala’s Neti-Neti Budget

What Gives?

Budgets are acts of faith but more importantly a confirmation of expectations with numbers and commitments.

Written By Chitra Subramaniam | Mumbai | Updated On:

As young children we once travelled to the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry in South India. Excited to have lunch, we sat down to what was a meal to remember. It was tasteless and bland and none of us liked it. As we ate, I looked around to catch someone’s eye in hope of agreement. It’s that time in a present day meeting when everyone’s looking at their phones! Later it was explained to us that the philosophy behind the food was to enjoy what was on the plate as it was impossible to please everyone. The teaching was important and matched what I was raised with – eat what’s on your plate. 
Budget 2019 reminded me a little of that event and a little more. Before that thought runs away, I want to submit that the budget is not one India expected, certainly not from a government that returned with such a thumping majority a few weeks ago. Budgets are acts of faith but more importantly a confirmation of expectations with numbers and commitments. Growth, jobs prosperity and progress was at the heart of young India that turned out in large numbers to give Prime Minister Narendra Modi a second term. In the run up to 2014, he had asked Indians for ten years to turn the country around – he now has five more.  India is still growing faster than many economies but a slowdown now pegged at 6.8 per cent is not good news. We want to know how – now. 

I take the liberty to call this the neti–neti budget (nah iti – a sandhi from Sanskrit). In the study of one of India’s most ancient teachings, the Advaita Vedanta, the question eventually rolls around to asking what or who is God. The teacher begins by saying God is neither this nor that in an effort to peel off external layers of ignorance in a didactic manner wherein the questioning by the student is the answering of the knowledge revealed by the enlightened teacher whose control of knowledge is as complete as it is humbling. Negation leads to affirmation in a pattern of trust and exchange. The dialogue is important – in modern political or military language it would probably be called confidence-building measure.  

No one was expecting milk and honey to flow out of Budget 2019, but as some excellent analysts have pointed out, this is the budget of small things in a nation of over 1.3 billion people rearing to go. I am especially concerned about the $5 trillion mantra which many are repeating as it if will materialise without root and branch changes that should have begun five years ago. Where are the economic triggers and motors that will set this machine rolling? Bureaucrats are not entrepreneurs, risk is not a power point presentation – Indians I know are willing to invest in the country but they fear this Robin Hood arrives in Wall Street mentality that can go off and on at will. Money will go where money feels safe, not where it is made to feel guilty. It will flee faster than it arrives when it senses threat long before any committee can fathom much less course-correct. All Indian governments are guilty of guilt.

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There have been many takeaways (how I hate that formulation) since Budget day. Roadmap, high on promise low on delivery, where’s the money, how can you distribute money that must not be generated and what is this about taking from the rich and giving to poor people? “Dreaming big doesn’t necessarily mean acting big…if you’re looking for ‘big bang reforms’, don’t look for it in Budget 2019. Instead, read her budget as a series of small steps that bring efficiency into extant systems, a work-in-progress of the past five years that takes the NDA government’s policy continuity forward, and powered by the BJP’s confidence of 303 seats in Lok Sabha,” writes Gautam Chikermane of the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) in a fine essay that separates wheat from chaff.  Read here.
This is a complicated budget, high on verbosity and low on verticals. It has promise, but requires inexplicable penance from people - and always the same people - who want nothing more than to participate in India’s growth story. The suggestion that petrol prices have been raised to nudge Indians to take to public transport is insensitive at best as is the suggestion that poor people must own their dreams and go out and make the India of their dreams happen. How? Who must create wealth even if one were to assume that an enlightened leadership (let's take the example of philosopher-rulers from Plato’s Simile of the Cave) would disburse that in the best of national interest? It’s also odd to compare tax brackets in developed countries with that in India without speaking about social safety nets that some of the former provide – why this muddle?

In this Kurukshetra, Madam Finance Minister, a war has to be waged against unemployment. Doesn’t matter how and with what armoury India will go out in the world to bring in investments, spur growth nationally and give us the country we deserve and the leadership we voted for. We are not looking for God – we want jobs, we want to grow and prosper. 

Economies are based on philosophies as much as they are on numbers. Most human beings don’t want to be CEOs or go to institutions of excellence whose records are patchy in many cases. People want jobs, healthcare, social and economic security and peace that emerges as a dividend of that promise and hard work. 

What is India’s philosophy?

(The views and opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Republic TV/ Republic World/ ARG Outlier Media Pvt. Ltd.)


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