New Delhi: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s absence from a key pre-budget meeting Thursday between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and economists and sector experts at Niti Ayog has raised many eyebrows, with Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and a section of the Twitterati taking digs at her.
Present at the Niti Aayog meeting were Home Minister Amit Shah, Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal and Transport and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Nitin Gadkari. Sitharaman, however, was busy at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi, taking feedback from party colleagues on the Budget that she will present on 1 February.
Her second budget comes at a time when the economy is estimated to grow at a 11-year low of 5 per cent led by a sharp fall in investment and consumption.
The Thursday meeting was significant as it was a part of the Modi government’s exercise to engage in broad-based consultations with practitioners and thought leaders while preparing for the Union Budget amid the slowdown.
Sitharaman was also absent from another meeting held earlier this week between the prime minister and top industrialists, including Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata.
Last year, too, Sitharaman wasn’t present at the pre-Budget Niti Aayog meeting, while Goyal was there.
In the Modi government’s first term, when Arun Jaitley was finance minister, he would attend the Niti Aayog meetings between the PM and economists.
‘Finance Minister’ was trending on Twitter, with several users pointing out Sitharaman’s absence from the Niti Aayog meeting.
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor tweeted, asking: “Where is the Finance Minister? Or has the Duo forgotten they have one?”
Where is the Finance Minister? Or has the Duo forgotten they have one? https://t.co/990NEDyQp4
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) January 9, 2020
The Congress said, “Here’s a suggestion, next budget meeting, consider inviting the Finance Minister.”
— Congress (@INCIndia) January 9, 2020
It also took a jibe at the government, asking “How many men does it take to do a woman’s job?”
— Congress (@INCIndia) January 9, 2020
Several other users also took a dig at the government over Sitharaman’s absence.
Looks like Home Minister is doing finance meeting, while Finance Minister is at home. https://t.co/DcAeYeRXre
— Ramesh Srivats (@rameshsrivats) January 9, 2020
Where is our Finance Minister? https://t.co/dpkKToZWnI
— Kiran Manral (@KiranManral) January 9, 2020
First Budget flak
Faced with a slowing economy, Sitharaman will have to announce steps to revive rural demand and consumption as well as encourage firms to step up investments.
Many economists have favoured a growth-stimulating budget even if it is at the cost of fiscal prudence.
Sitharaman’s first budget, presented in July 2019, received a lot of criticism for some of its proposals. This had forced the government to either relook or put on hold some proposals. The government rolled back the super-rich surcharge on foreign portfolio investors and also did not implement its plan to raise funds through sovereign bond issuances in overseas currencies.
The proposal to increase public shareholding in listed companies to 35 per cent from 25 per cent has also not found any traction with the capital markets regulator Securities Exchange Board of India.
In fact, the most significant proposal so far to battle the slowdown in growth has come outside of the budget, with Sitharaman announcing a cut in corporate tax rates making the Indian economy competitive compared to other economies.
What was Sitharaman doing?
Finance ministry sources said the minister had a pre-scheduled meeting with representatives of the BJP seeking inputs for the budget at the same time that the PM was meeting the economists at Niti Aayog.
The twitter handle of the FM’s office also tweeted the details.
Smt @nsitharaman interacts with the office-bearers, panelists, spokespersons, and members of the morchas and departments of @BJP4India in New Delhi, as a part of the pre-budget discussions. pic.twitter.com/9wkB8fOFFh
— NSitharamanOffice (@nsitharamanoffc) January 9, 2020
Sitharaman had discussions with office-bearers, spokespersons, morchas and other organisations on the Union Budget. She left at around 2 pm from the meeting.
“She held consultations with the party people to understand what are the expectations from the budget and what all should be there in the budget,” said a senior BJP leader.
“All the office-bearers, spokespersons, intellectuals, and morchas such as minority, women, youth etc gave their suggestions. More such meetings will be held in the coming few days. This is just the start. Everyone appreciated the move by the finance minister.”
Present at the BJP core budget consultation were working president J.P. Nadda, general secretary Arun Singh and Bhupender Yadav and RSS’ B.L. Santhosh.