Budget Day highlights and reactions flood the newspapers on Saturday and Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman ought to be satisfied with the overall verdict, although there are some strictures.
While Page 1 reports appear reasonably happy, the newspapers editorials are less impressed.
The headlines reflect a wing and prayer: from The Hindu’s sobersides headline, ‘Step by Step,’ — “Nirmala’s maiden Budget is all about incremental measures” — and The Indian Express’s conservative estimate, ‘Tight fist, fingers crossed’, to Hindustan Times’s optimism, ‘Rights, duties & 5 trillion hopes’ and cricketing analogies in Times of India on the day India plays its final league match at the World Cup — ‘All Round show on debut’, ‘FM stumps Rich, Bats for Investment’ (TOI), the mainstream media welcomes Budget ‘19.
All other news takes a backseat as the newspapers detail, dissect and deconstruct each and every proposal in the Budget—or so it would appear—in lengthy coverage that ranges from 12 news pages in TOI and HT, to 11 in Hindu and Express.
The Opinion pages are also dominated by reactions to the Budget (See: Opinion & ThoughtShot).
The Hindu admires Sitharaman’s budget for sidestepping “the spectacular announcement route.” TOI lauds her for “taking the looming economic challenges head on” with an “unconventional start” — referring to the income tax surcharge on those who earn more than Rs 2 crore.
Express’s opening paragraph is critical of this fact, saying that it “does little to stoke private investment and consumption demand despite a slowing economy.” But it concedes that the budget “adheres to a prudent fiscal roadmap.”
TOI thinks the budget will “fortify Modi’s image as a crusader for ‘Gaon, Garib and Kisan.’”
Its sister publication, The Economic Times is less pleased despite its fun graphics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the FM in India’s blue jerseys (not orange!) accompanying a headline which reads ‘Budget Takes Economy to Semifinal.’
It calls the budget “unexciting,” “protectionist and inward-looking,” and declares that it provides “no fiscal boost to accelerate GDP growth to the 8 % target for Modi government 2.0.” Stung by tax rates, it says “Soaking the rich may be good socialism, but worsens India’s competitiveness in tax rates.”
Business Standard in ‘Fiscally correct, but familiar tax targets’ recognizes the FM’s “novel ways of raising resources while also seeking to restore confidence in the financial sector…” with support for SMES and start ups.
Hindustan Times says the budget “followed the prescription detailed in the Economic Survey”. It disagrees with ET, and says that in fact, it does plenty to “boost private investment, even as it prioritised its own spending in the creation of rural and urban infrastructure that could drive growth.”
TOI admires “the former JNU scholar” for her vision of a “social stock exchange that will help social enterprises and voluntary organisations to raise money.”
It was clearly Sitharaman’s day as TOI, HT and Express devote almost an entire page to her interview with DD News, but leave it for their inside pages.
For HT, the Union budget 2019-20 was “disciplined, growth-oriented” one, minus populist policies. It was “one that pretty much encapsulates the formula that has worked for the BJP and Narendra Modi – part reformist, part nation-building, and part socialist.”
HT sees three key messages in the budget. First, the decision to not compromise on “fiscal discipline in its efforts to revive growth”, with a target of 3.3% this year. Second, its reformist aim of funding ambitious infrastructure with external sovereign debt to avoid borrowing that “will crowd the private sector out of the market.” Third is the attempt to boost investment by attracting foreign investments by relaxing FDI rules.
TOI, in “Up in the air,” argues that the budget was constructed with the “$5-trillion economy in mind.” For this government, the way forward is to attract foreign investment and reform the capital market. To increase investment “higher FDI limits and looser restrictions on FII investment” have been announced which will “increase RBI challenges.” RBI has also been assigned greater regulatory power over NBFCs.
TOI underlines the various points related to tax proposals which are “underwhelming,” and might hinder the larger goal of global integration.” — the “quality of fiscal consolidation does remain worrisome”, it writes.
Express in ‘Incrementalism over ambition’ says “creative incrementalism” has been the hallmark of the Modi government and the budget is a product of that. For an economy struggling with “deepening growth slowdown and drying up of investments” this budget is underwhelming. The positives include proposals of budgeting the fiscal deficit at 3.3% and “sovereign bond floatations” which will allow the Centre to borrow cheaply.
However, the budget fails to offer a “coherent reform vision for investors,” especially in agriculture, in terms of assurances to agri-businesses. “The current budget is proof of caution taking precedence over ambition.”
The Hindu’s ‘Bucks for the banks’ argues that the budget has “defining features” but no “central theme.” While there were expectations of “big growth push,” the actual result was “fiscally conservative.” The long-standing issue of the NBFC sector has been resolved by bringing it within RBI’s ambit.
Of the several reforms announced, the most interesting is “commitment to strategic disinvestment and the declaration that it is willing to allow its stake to fall below 51% in non-financial PSUs.” Aadhar seems to be on its way to become the primary identity card. However, the increase in custom duties for several items “sends out a retrograde signal on the reforms front.”
From the South
The Tamil daily Dinamani is quite critical of the budget, It says “Maybe because there was not much expectation, Nirmala Sitharaman’s first budget hasn’t received much critique. Looks like just one more budget has been passed”. While welcoming that only the very rich were targeted instead of middle-class people with new taxes, it is annoyed with the hike in fuel prices.
It also raises a question of whether PAN will be linked to Aadhaar or PAN will be abandoned. “There is nothing intelligent and appreciable in Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget. Very average one… this will not help the economy or the common people life”
With inputs from Rachel John.