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Sitharaman’s Budget speech was low on political buzzwords, & this was a message from Modi

The terms 'poor' & 'poverty' figured just once in Sitharaman's speech, as compared to 16 times in this year’s interim budget speech, 23 in 2018-19 and 22 in 2017-18.

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New Delhi: Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s Budget speech Friday carried a message from Prime Minister Narendra Modi: An end to the politics and economics of symbolism, for now.

It was clear from the moment she entered Parliament. She had discarded the practice of carrying Budget documents in a briefcase and opted for a red bag or ‘bahi-khata (ledger)’. As she started her Budget speech, the usual — almost conventional — ode to the poor, the farmer and the oppressed was missing.

In her over two-hour-long speech, the terms “poor” and “poverty” figured just once each — as compared to 16 times in this year’s interim budget speech, 23 times in 2018-19 and 22 times in 2017-18.

Look at the frequency of the other politically-potent word, “farmer”: Nine times in Sitharaman’s speech, 24 times in Piyush Goyal’s interim budget speech in February, and 30, 24 and 29 times in the three previous budget speeches by Arun Jaitley.

The frequency of political buzzwords in a Budget speech is not the reflection of a government’s priority, especially when they have become the watchwords for all finance ministers.

Therefore, when Sitharaman chose to use them sparingly, it had to be well-thought-out — just as her 20 mentions of the word “women” was, in the context of her reference to the record turnout of women in this election and the presence of 78 women MPs in the 17th Lok Sabha.

Also read: Modi govt wants more Muslims in IAS & IPS, raises budget for free UPSC coaching

Previous Budget speeches were always replete with predictable catchwords — the poor, the farmers, the youth, the Scheduled Castes, the tribals, jobs and employment. Finance ministers have used them repeatedly to show their commitment to all these sections.

As Sitharaman’s speech indicated, the prime minister, confident of the impact of his welfare schemes and his own popularity, is not interested in such lip-service at the start of his second term.

It was also evident from the absence of three other political keywords in Sitharaman’s speech — Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Haryana, the three states that are going to polls this year. Check out previous Budget speeches. It’s rare that poll-bound states find no mention in the Union Budget.

There was a time when there would be announcements of new trains, new rail lines, locomotive plans and passenger-fare revisions, but the prime minister did away with the rail budget in his first term. Sitharaman talked about the railways in her speech but those populist announcements were missing.

Eye on the macro-picture

In the past, finance ministers have been known to play to the gallery, allotting a new IIT or AIIMS or NIT campus here and there.

There would be a scheme for tea-garden workers, a package for coffee-growers, or another incentive for another section in different states. They would all be greeted with the thumping of desks by parliamentarians coming from those areas.

There would be an announcement of a ‘Nirbhaya Fund’ or some other scheme targeted at particular sections or groups of people. More often than not, many of these schemes remained on paper and the money allocated for them kept rolling over from one year to another.

There was no such announcement by Sitharaman Friday as she focused on the macro-picture. She also abandoned her predecessors’ practice of declaring significant increases in budgetary allocations in politically-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, rural development and defence, leaving it for the people to find out in Budget documents.

Also read: Even after Balakot air strikes, defence budget remains unchanged at Rs 3.18 lakh crore


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  1. I think even a modest reduction in the budgeted figure of 3.3% for the fiscal deficit sends out a message of prudent / responsible macroeconomic management. That should be reinforced by ensuring that the numbers can be taken at face value by all responsible stakeholders. Clearly, turbocharged growth is what the economy now needs. $ 5 trillion is a nice round figure, like 6 feet for a serious athlete who is training for the high jump. Each sector of the economy has to do its share of heavy lifting to get us there. Manufacturing and exports – two subjects FM has dealt with earlier – need special attention. Given how hard this government works, how little sleep it gets at nigh, the challenges must be top of its mind all the time.

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