The last budget that a government presents during its term is called “interim” for a reason. There is no guarantee that the party currently in office, which only has 2-3 months left in its term, will get re-elected, so it is unfair and undemocratic to usurp the powers of the next government by placing a full budget. Since there’s no accountability for the last budget, you can promise the moon for all you want.
Presenting a full budget in the name of an interim one, as Piyush Goyal did on Friday, betrays extreme arrogance on the part of the BJP leadership. The nature of announcements made it seem more like the launch of a Narendra Modi ‘Re-election Yojana’. I’m not delving into where the money will appear for such big-bang announcements—that is a separate, serious question in itself.
A budget with an announcement (not in terms of the amount, which is minuscule compared with the extent of agrarian distress in India, but policy) such as direct benefit transfer (DBT), which is a fundamental shift in the philosophy of governance, required a thorough political discussion, especially since there is no consensus on the economic effects of such a shift. Ethically speaking, if the Modi government was serious about such a shift, it should have done this in its first budget, not the last.
By making this announcement now, instead of coming across as the reform-oriented government it would like to be, it has projected itself as trying to grab votes in the general election. It has also put the burden of this arithmetic on the next government because the only way in which they themselves would have to deal with the books is if they get re-elected. Such a short-term approach to a long-term policy shift should cast a serious doubt even in the minds of DBT supporters.
A similar ‘big-bang’ announcement was made last year, Ayushman Bharat, supposedly the world’s biggest health insurance scheme. Again, without going into the pros or cons of public provisioning of health vis-à-vis an insurance-based scheme, even those who believe the latter is better would agree that the allocation for the scheme was paltry and the proposed coverage impossible within that amount. One could argue that the proof of the pudding is in the eating but the problem is that there’s not enough time to prove it either way.
Friday’s interim budget was yet another instance of trying to throw dust into the eyes of voters, instead of the serious policymaking process that a country’s budget is meant to be. One will have to wait till the elections to see whether it worked or not.