A Budget Presentation High on Nationalist Symbolism

More than an economic roadmap, Nirmala Sitharaman gave a glimpse of the political and social direction this government plans to take over the next five years.

“In the first 50 years after independence, we emphasised on rights. Marking 75 years of our independence, we should place emphasis on our duty towards India, without undermining rights. Thinkers all over the world have supported the argument that in performing one’s duty, protection of one’s rights is inherent. For the right future of India, when again in 2022 we will remember our freedom fighters, we should dedicate ourselves to serve our nation.”

With these words, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman ended ‘Part A’ of her marathon Budget speech. Whether these stirring, patriotic words are full in tune with what is essentially a finance document is debatable, but the sentiment certainly reflects this government’s ideology, even its ethos.

The Nation is never far from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s, and therefore this government’s, pronouncements – One Nation, One Election is only the most recent invocation of it. Sitharaman’s speech did not disappoint on that front – One Nation, One Grid and One Nation, One Card were among her mentions. A plan to unite the country by connecting roads and highways, and another to link the rivers, was first aired during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s prime ministership and was part of Friday’s Budget speech.

Iterations of nationalism were very much present in Sitharaman’s speech on Friday. More than an economic roadmap, Sitharaman gave a glimpse of the political and social direction this government plans to take over the next five years.

The corporate sector was among the biggest supporters of Narendra Modi from the time he was anointed as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in 2013. The ardour has not cooled off, even if big business and even medium enterprises are disappointed by the lack of progress in making things easy or by the sluggish economic growth.

There was hope that with a hefty majority in the Lok Sabha, the Modi government this time would go full throttle for just the kind of economic reforms that would boost business activity. Instead, once again the government decided to focus on the constituency that matters the most to it – the lower middle classes (tax incentives for affordable housing), rural sector (water and electricity for all) and most significantly women, who, as Sitharaman pointed out, voted in the 2019 elections in large numbers.

Also read: Budget 2019 Reeks of a Lack of Real Ambition

The message is clear – Modi understands who matters more and, now that he is ensconced for five years, he does not need big businessmen. Sure investment has to be spurred, and infrastructure funding will need private finance, but that can be tackled separately. Optics wise, Sitharaman made sure that the messaging was clear – this government  has not forgotten those who voted for it.

The claims of achievements and targets met can be challenged – 95% of cities are definitely not open defecation free, for instance. But as was seen in the results, people are convinced that Modi and his government have their welfare in mind. There is hope that like LPG connections, running water and electricity will be provided in the coming years. Besides, Modi is also ensuring that the voters remain hopeful and in good humour for all the state elections in the next five years.

There are many small but significant shifts that this government has brought about that are vastly different from any previous administration. Sitharaman brought the Budget documents in what she called a ‘bahi-khata‘, eschewing the usual briefcase as a symbol of Westernisation – though for many Indians, a red-coloured account book would represent the trader and the money lender. It was carefully chosen imagery, to demonstrate the swadeshi credentials of the government.

Religion has crept into official discourse and documentation. Sitharaman quoted several swamis – including Vivekananda, a great favourite of the Hindutva types. Thursday’s Economic Survey, which usually tends to be a dry document, had references to religion. In a small section titled ‘Tax Evasion, wilful default, and the Doctrine of Pious Obliigation’, the Survey quoted Hinduism, Islam and the Bible to show how non-payment of debts is a sin.

Also read: Modi 2.0 Unveils Seemingly Fiscally Responsible Budget Aimed at Boosting Growth

This is something that the small debt taker, whether a villager or a middle-class home buyer, knows and lives by. Missing an EMI would be a matter of shame for anyone, apart from the worry of rough debt collectors who would call on the debtor. But it is highly unlikely that such religious strictures will make the slightest difference to those who owe thousands of crores to banks, and appealing to any sense of moral obligation in an economic document therefore seems redundant.

The success or otherwise of this budget – big on slogans and somewhat short on specifics, at least as far as the speech was concerned – will be seen in the coming months and years. But Sitharaman has ensured that the government’s political and social framework has been made as clear as possible. Those objectives and targets too will bear watching in the future.