Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s first full-time female finance minister, now also has the distinction of becoming the country’s first finance minister to unveil a union budget during the turbulent Covid-19 times. Sitharaman’s budget is thus sui generis in every sense. While listing out the country’s annual incomes and expenditures, she took refuge in the words of Rabindranath Tagore: “Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark” (Fireflies, A Collection of Aphorisms).
In 2020, the Indian economy faltered more than other big economies, pushing poor farmers back into the poverty net. During the lockdown, the union government’s Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY) provided free food to 800 million people, cooking gas to 80 million families and direct cash to over 400 million people. But that was not enough to protect many from taking their own lives due to the unbearable pain of extreme, pandemic-induced poverty.
Sitharaman’s budget is also the first of the new, challenged-filled decade. Although there are more pressing issues of ensuring food, shelter and healthcare to pandemic-hit Indians, Sitharaman tried to sidestep these priorities by trying to play up the year 2021 as India’s 75th year of Independence, Goa’s 60th years of accession to India—to celebrate which Goa got InRs 300 crores—50th year of the India-Pakistan war. She also said 2021 was the year of Chanrayaan-3 Mission and the Haridwar Maha Kumbha. These landmarks mean little to poor Indians who are looking to survive the covid crisis.
The budget that touches upon the lives of 1.3 billion Indians directly and millions more in the region indirectly is based on six major pillars: i) health and wellbeing, ii) physical and financial capital, and infrastructure, iii) inclusive development for aspirational India, iv) reinvigorating human capital, v) innovation and research and development, and vi) minimum government and maximum governance. All six pillars have been projected as foundations for AtmaNirbhar (Self-reliant) India. As Sitharaman rightly said in her budget speech, this is a continuity of the past. What she didn’t mention is that the same approach has been holding India back for decades.
By citing Thirukkural—Aphoristic teachings on virtue, wealth, and love in Tamil 17th century text—on taxation, Sitharaman has positioned herself as a central BJP figure from the Tamil constituency. She mentioned: “A king/Ruler is the one who creates and acquires wealth, protects and distributes it for common good (Thirukkural 385).” But without the imagined wealth creation, it only indicates Indian people will have to struggle more to meet their basic needs while ruling party leaders keep delivering sanctimonious speeches filled with abstract couplets that do not rhyme with people’s daily challenges.
Some in Nepal have applauded India’s new budget as it marginally increases India’s allocation for Nepal and other neighboring countries. But that is a stunt in regional politics even as the budget disorients the Indian economy. Yes, Nepal may get more from the government of India this year. But a more prosperous India would have more to share with us than what we are getting from union government’s annual allocation.
There are many positive features of Sitharaman’s budget. She has put people’s health and wellbeing as her government’s number one priority, allocated money for affordable housing and elderly population, vowed to further digitize governance and public service delivery, emphasized connectivity, and most importantly, allocated enough for Covid-19 vaccination in the country. These positive aspects will add to Sitharaman’s credentials as a finance minister in these historically difficult times. But she too has been unable to depart from the conventional BJP style of playing up India’s self-imagined reliance, which is in fact impossible in the age of digital connectivity.
A former defense minister of India with a socialist bent, Sitharaman offered tremendous hope for her country. But her hopes and priorities for India already appear misplaced.