Who Cares for the Budget?

The preparations at the government level begin months before. But the obsession in the media sets in just about a fortnight ahead of D Day (‘B Day’ would be more appropriate though). Edit pages of newspapers – and not just of the ‘Pink’ variety – are full of articles by ‘experts’ pontificating on what the annual budget may hold for industry, the middle class, farmers, the service sector and sundry other sectors that together constitute the great Indian economy.

As the annual kumbh mela of financial jugglery nears, economists, experts on finance and industrialists are suddenly in great demand, hopping from one TV studio to another dispensing nuggets of economic gyaan. Twitter and other social media outlets are abuzz with both experts and common men joining in the fun. The deliberations reach fever pitch on budget day with panelists, booked weeks in advance, dissecting every little component of the Union Finance minister’s speech and assessing their impact on the economy. [Funnily, some of the ‘experts’ have to brush up their knowledge and understanding of the budget provisions, more often than not by talking to real ‘experts’, before venturing into a TV studio!]

While the ‘experts’ dispense their pearls of wisdom in the air-conditioned comfort of the TV studio, the reporters have to sweat it out on the ground, often having to brief a person on the provisions in the budget – and sometimes even on what they should say – to get the customary ‘vox pop’ that is such an essential part of budget coverage.

Such is the obsession of our media with budget that the news of a powerful landmine blast triggered by suspected Maoists in the Sunki ghati in Koraput district on Wednesday evening – which, in the normal course, would have been at the top of the headlines – was quietly relegated to the background.

But does the hullabaloo really matter for the common man? Does the man on the street, already reeling under the impact of demonetization, really care if cash deposits of over Rs 3 lakh have been outlawed by the budget? Does the man who slogs eight hours a day on a construction site for two square meals give two hoots if ‘friends’ of political parties cannot donate more than Rs 2000 (the earlier limit was Rs 20, 000) in cash (a budget proposal that has been sought to be sold as the greatest piece of electoral reforms to a gullible public)?  Does the labourer waiting at Kantabanji station for a train to Raipur or Hyderabad really know or bother about the implications of a falling tax-GDP ratio? Just about the only way he would be affected by the budget (now that there is no separate railway budget) is if it raises passenger fares. And remember, these are the people who constitute the majority of the Indian population. They are the very people for whose supposed benefit most government schemes – and budget proposals – are launched. [Then there is the large population of smokers who know months in advance what the budget would entail for them – a hefty hike in the price of their favourite fag – and yet couldn’t care less!]

So, who exactly are the people who obsess about the budget? The middle class – the salaried class, in particular – for sure. Then there are those who are in various trades and industry, including the rapidly growing services sector, people in the academia and wannabe arm chair ‘experts’ nurturing dreams of making it to a TV studio for discussion on the budget some day. Even after three decades in journalism, this columnist, for one, has never quite understood the correlation between the stock market and a particular budget proposal and has frequently wondered whether this is not an essentially middle class obsession.

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