With a speech consisting of over 12,500 words, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday tried to make it possible for his government to counter allegations of being a "suit-boot ki sarkaar". Jaitley cited the global economic slowdown to claim that the task ahead is about to get tougher even though India’s economy is standing its ground firmly. But was he successful?
While economists read between the lines and scrutinise the specifics of the budget allocations, a precursory look at the contents of his speech could provide some clues about the direction in which the Narendra Modi government is headed – at least for the next year.
Crucially, the speech this year was tilted much more towards the gloom in global economy – an argument that Jaitley has used to defend India's sluggish economy and rural distress. He spoke of multiple initiatives that the government has now proposed to bring the rural economy back on track.
For instance, the word "global" found 13 mentions in this year’s speech as compared to just 5 times last year. On the other hand, the word "agriculture" was mentioned only 7 times in the last budget speech as compared to 20 times this year.
Development economists pointed out that many words related to social security net and public welfare have gone missing from this year’s budget completely. Some other words such as "children", "nutrition" and "mid-day meals" didn't find a mention.
“The latest Budget Speech perpetuates a chronic blindness to basic social needs,” said Jean Drèze, an economist at Ranchi University. "Children are not mentioned at all and nor are (say) nutrition, social security or maternity entitlements.”
Economists Ravi Srivastava, who was a member of the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector, set up by the previous United Progressive Alliance government, said that the current budget speech provides changing patterns of the government spending.
"As far as social security is concerned, Modi government has made a compromise with the survival of the MNREGA [Mahatama Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act] but not outside the so-called “JAM” [Jan-Aadhaar-Mobile] and contributory insurance schemes in which beneficiaries will have to deposit money in," Srivastava said. "Such contributory insurance schemes, however, have a very thin net, when people need a big scheme of non-contributory scheme for welfare. The government is not remotely willing to go for that (non-contributory) approach."
Interestingly, the word "infrastructure" was mentioned only 23 times this year in the budget speech as opposed to 60 times last year. Same goes for the flagship Swachh Bharat programme which was mentioned at least 10 times in the last year’s budget but this time it found only 4 mentions while Yoga completely vanished from the speech this time.
Moreover, the budget speech this year had no specific announcements for defence services that only found stray mentions about 5 times while "prime minister" was mentioned at least six times by Jaitley during his speech.